Mapping vital world data in flux helps decision makers to see the big picture

Geographic Information Systems can monitor and simplify data on everything from soils, temperature and rainfall to voting preferences

Eamonn Doyle, chief technology officer, Esri Ireland: ‘The basic principles of location-based science remain the same, but what has changed is our ability to acquire, create, store, manage and analyse much more location-based information as computing power increases and storage costs decrease’

Understanding the world is critical for many decisions, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) help many organisations do so. GIS have advanced in many ways, and their ability to obtain more data is growing, said Eamonn Doyle, chief technology officer, at Esri Ireland.

“The basic principles of location-based science remain the same, but what has changed is our ability to acquire, create, store, manage and analyse much more location-based information as computing power increases and storage costs decrease,” he explained.

Likewise, the growth in mobile and Internet of Things (IoT) devices acting as sensors has helped in its ability to analyse phenomena from weather to people’s movement.

A GIS is a natural host for this location-based data, where said information can be processed to help visualise and analyse it and gain insights that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. This, said Doyle, coupled with innovative computing techniques such as deep learning and predictive statistical analysis, helps expand the toolkit available to GIS users.

Throughout its history, Esri Ireland has developed products that help analysts and policymakers make evidence-based decisions by using data in its Living Atlas of the World product. Other products like Business Analyst Online are intended for commercial audiences who are focused primarily on site selection, while Community Analyst is focused on policy issues and enabling understanding of communities wanting to understand social issues.

Company Name: Esri Ireland

Year founded: 2002

Number of staff: 79

Turnover: Revenue, €16.5 million to the end of the last fiscal year

Such data is valuable only when it’s on a map for people to understand. The location component of the data is shown as a series of layers on the map which users can exploit in different ways, said Doyle.

In general, there are two types of area-based data, he said.

“Things like soils, temperature or rainfall, those sorts of natural phenomena are continuous data,” he said. “It doesn’t have edges as such. Click any point of the map, and you will get a reading.

“Human-induced phenomena such as voting intentions, lifestyle data, deprivation data, built-up areas, and so on, are discrete data. We tend to collect these data into divisions like counties or small statistical areas.”

GIS can aggregate continuous data in the same way as discrete data and help explore the relationship between them. Exploring the relationship between factors like air quality and health status can tell you a lot about an area.

Many examples of this happening have popped up. For instance, Doyle mentions a recent report from Pobal, regarding the updated Deprivation Index – Ireland’s most widely used social gradient metric, which scores each small area, circa 100 households, regarding affluence or disadvantage.

As it’s been updated, it’s beginning to reveal time series insights, allowing Pobal to identify and delineate areas that are showing as not just deprived but consistently deprived over time.

Such insights can have a significant impact in helping areas improve in multiple ways.

Part of the power of GIS is its ability to create digital twins, something Esri Ireland has been helping its customers with for a long time, well before the term was created. Doyle mentions that the big change now is that these representations are no longer static but can model processes in real time and showcase ‘what-if’ scenarios.

“For example, we have a water utility that can now predict when storm sewers will overflow, because the digital twin understands the flows, levels and inverts in the system and because the IoT sensors are continuously feeding it information,” said Doyle.

“In the construction sphere, we are seeing increased interest in continuous monitoring of large building sites, using daily drone flights to show progress.”

Overall, GIS allows businesses to achieve greater efficiency and, in some cases, to exist in the background without users being aware. A straightforward example Doyle offers is a business that gets a call regarding an incident.

The call can be geo-coded, and GIS can determine the closest available operative to that customer and the optimum route. It’s working closely with Microsoft to build these capabilities into business process workflows using its Power Automate system to ensure greater ease of use.