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Our interconnected, spatial future

By Deborah Bunker, University of Sydney
Tuesday, 05 December, 2017

Our interconnected, spatial future

Public and private sectors must capitalise on spatial technologies to forge a future of inclusiveness for individuals and societies.

We live in a time of growing dependence on technological inter-connectedness. Smartphones and embedded computing devices in homes, cars and offices; information, software, networking and communication providers such as Google, Facebook and Twitter; and product and service providers such as Amazon and Uber all contribute to how we are defining our ‘virtual selves’ and how we relate to each other in an increasingly informed virtual world.

Our smartphones are becoming our window to the world, not only providing us with a huge and diverse amount of information, but also enabling us to know where we are at any given time in relation to the people and things around us, ie, spatially.

Such developments in personal information technology platforms have profoundly changed the way we use and view information. They have also directly contributed to consumer, institutional and economic transformation in the form of the sharing economy, and our view of the products and services that we buy, the organisations in which we work and how we estimate our value to the societies in which we live.

But it is a two-way information process, in which commerce and government can profile and share our virtual selves and increasingly and more accurately know and share our whereabouts, potentially in real time.

Coherent and cohesive

It is predicted that by 2019 more than five billion people will have mobile phones, with roughly 50% of them being smartphones. Potentially, this will have an enormous influence on the ability of government agencies, private organisations, communities and individuals to work together to achieve the best outcomes and solutions for the social cohesion and inclusiveness that we all seek.

Current and future developments in the creation and use of spatial information and new spatial information systems will, however, determine our ability to provide a future of ‘interconnectedness with inclusiveness’, a topic that was high on the agenda at the Spatial Futures Forum at the University of Sydney in September 2017.

According to the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information, spatial information is the “digital connection between location, people and activities. This information can graphically illustrate what is happening (where, how and why) to show the insight and impact of the past, the present and the (likely) future.”

Spatial information systems have largely been developed as discrete and unconnected system ‘islands’. Although this system isolation has been lately disrupted by the likes of Google Maps, there are still limits to the effective use of spatial information in real time in an interconnected and inclusive way to deal with emerging current and future scenarios faced by society.

Urban planning, crisis management, transport management, and product and service delivery could all be better integrated and improved by a more coherent and cohesive approach to spatial information system development and use — for instance, the potential for a drone to deliver a pizza to your door or medicine to a sick child in a remote location.

But future information systems — say, 3D GPS — must be able to continuously and accurately provide data to the drone regarding its location in relation to other people and things (we don’t want it to collide with another drone, building, person, car and so on) and then marry these complex relationships via a path of movement, to provide an accurate destination address.

This will not be an easy operation until the data the drone is seeking can be accessed from other non-compatible or unconnected spatial information systems at real-time speeds.

Data on demand

Discussion at the Spatial Futures Forum canvassed a wide variety of technologies, scenarios and solutions focusing on the needs of communities over the coming years, and the solutions to those needs.

One such need is consistency in location addressing standards and location data collection. This will be essential to improve the effective delivery of public and private products and services, such as the dispatch of ambulances and police, faster delivery of goods, and better coordination and provision of transport services. These will all rely on accurate and complete addressing data, including, say, the present position of a caller.

Another focus of discussion was the strategic alignment of spatial data management strategies with business IT initiatives across government and the private sector and an eventual end to spatial digital islands. Increasingly, interconnectedness with inclusiveness will come to rely on our ability to bring spatial data together — accurately, quickly and comprehensively — from disparate sources. For instance, the ability to effectively plan our cities will rely on integration of accurate data supplied by state governments, councils, housing developers, geographers and local communities to provide complete 3D interactive models of current and future developments, in order to improve land use and reduce development costs.

There is also a need to develop spatial information systems using a data ‘on demand’ model. How might this approach affect our current thinking on real-time spatial system integration? Can disparate systems be better utilised to supply spatial data in new configurations as required for advances in autonomous systems, virtual services and digital personal communications?

The skills required for jobs of the future is of prime concern. If successful and effective spatial data modelling and analysis, system development, integration techniques and systems use are contingent on advanced science, technology, engineering and maths knowledge in the future, how should we be training students now? For instance, is geospatial data analytics an important and critical future skill for our building engineers and architects?

Living in a virtual world

There are also ethical issues surrounding the ‘virtual individuals’ who ‘inhabit’ the spatial environment. As we develop technical solutions to better integrate spatial information and systems, how should we effectively integrate the ‘virtual self’, which itself comprises islands of information? For example, what changes in law are required to deal with traffic in an era of autonomous cars? What are the ethical issues surrounding the definition and rights of a virtual individual? Do we need to develop different legal frameworks to give recognition and legitimacy to the virtual self? And what constitutes the rights, trusts, relationships, contracts and communications between virtual individuals and between virtual and physical representations of individuals?

And there are risks associated with spatial information systems integration. As access to spatial information becomes more readily available — for instance, as spatial information models and the sensors supplying the data become more integrated — what sort of risks does this pose to our infrastructure, eg, terrorism and cybercrime? Cohesive spatial data models and shareable locational information are essential for the safe and effective operation of digital technologies, but this situation may in turn present vulnerabilities (ie, an ‘all our eggs in one basket’ scenario) that will need to be closely managed.

There’s also the issue of defining the demarcation or integration of real and virtual worlds. As more integrated spatial information underpins the development of augmented reality systems that combine real and virtual experiences (such as Pokemon Go), how can we meaningfully navigate and relate the virtual and physical worlds and facilitate relationships of individuals, group and organisations within them?

The functional capabilities of smartphones — combined with the Internet of Things and the range and reach of large information platform providers such as Google — will mean that users have an unprecedented ability to network, communicate and share information to achieve interconnectedness with inclusiveness. For instance, the NSW Rural Fire Service has developed the Fires Near Me application to supply spatial data to inform the public of imminent danger from bushfire. This application has changed public expectations — giving you a better understanding of the fire danger near to you.

The Spatial Futures Forum highlighted issues that governments, organisations, academics and spatial systems research and development groups should carefully consider as they work towards a future that provides interconnectedness with inclusiveness for individuals and the societies in which they live.

Deborah Bunker is a Professor of Business Information Systems at the University of Sydney Business School, a member of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage-funded Human Health and Social Impacts Node hosted at the University of Sydney, as well as Chair and Convener of the Interoperability in Extreme Events Research Group.

Image credit: ©

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