"Our job is to provide tools and the mapping that can bring statistics to life": An interview with former OS Director Vanessa Lawrence

Features

  • Author: Statistics Views
  • Date: 06 May 2014
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of Ordnance Survey

Last month Dr Vanessa Lawrence stepped down as the Director General and Chief Executive of Ordnance Survey, Great Britain’s national mapping authority. She has served the organisation for 14 years, which makes her the authority's longest serving chief in over a century.

Dr Lawrence is now the Secretary General of Ordnance Survey International. In addition, in her role as Co-Chair of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM), Dr Lawrence will continue her work globally, with others, to assist the understanding, at the highest levels of countries, of the vital use of authoritative, maintained geospatial information that is so important for sustainable development, economic growth and security of nations.

Dr Lawrence will formally leave Ordnance Survey at the end of 2014 but she has been invited by the UK government to continue in her role with UN-GGIM after that date, for as long as the Member States wish her to be their elected Co-Chair.

Statistics Views talks to Dr Lawrence about her role, how statistics is intrinsically involved within Ordnance Survey, the UN-GGIM Committee of Experts, providing the data for the London Olympics 2012 and how Big Data is adding another dimension to statistics and geoinformation.

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1. You have recently stepped down as Director General and Chief Executive of Ordnance Survey, Great Britain’s national mapping authority and are now Secretary General. Please could you tell us more about what your role entailed?

Basically, my role was to lead Great Britain’s national mapping authority. I originally came from the private sector and I joined Ordnance Survey at a time when it needed to make quite substantial changes in order to meet the changing customer needs. I joined in 2000 as Director General and Chief Executive when the digital market for data was emerging. People were beginning to see the huge opportunities with it, much more than backdrop mapping. What we had to do was create the digital database that had intelligence in it, rather than just being a 2-dimensional digital map. During my first fourteen months, we created OS MasterMap, which is a large scale data product built up of four intelligent layers including transport (roads), addresses and aerial imagery. The dataset also has links through a unique 16 digit code between the geography and any other information that wants to be held within the data polygons.

Our MasterMap database for Britain is made up of about 460 million geographic feature and we make 10,000 changes to it every day. So it’s from that that the rest of our products and services are made – we maintain the geospatial database by using just under 300 field surveyors who accurately survey down to 1-2cm axiom on the ground and we guarantee that every feature on the ground is within 40cm of where it is.

The whole of Great Britain is already mapped but needs renewing e.g. if a petrol station is knocked down and replaced by a block of flats. It underpins all aspects of the daily life of Britain. We also fly over about one third of Great Britain each year. OS MasterMap is used by many customers and underpins aspects of what we call the “blue-light services”, e.g. emergency services, land registration, utilities, local authorities, various issues from grass cutting to road intersections. Our trusted data also underpins the leisure lives of the public e.g. leisure mapping – we now have an online leisure portal where you can access leisure destinations and plan your route. We also have a suite of apps for the Android and Apple devices.

2. Please could you explain more about your educational background and what was it that inspired you to take up a career in geography?

I was totally inspired by my geography teacher, Mrs Dover. When I was 14, I’d always been intrigued by maps and I used to look at this map in our home whilst doing my homework and then I was lucky to find a teacher who absolutely woke up my whole interest in anything to do with place and geography. I attribute my background to her and she knew that right up to the day she sadly died. I credit her totally for giving me the wonderful vision as to what geography can do.

I have an honours degree in geography from the University of Sheffield and an MSc in Satellite and Earth Observation and Remote Sensing. I also have other degrees that have been bestowed upon me.

3. How has statistics played a role in your career so far and how intrinsic is it to the work that you do, and to geography itself?

I personally as a good geographer have a solid background in statistics. I studied under Professor Ron Johnston who used to lecture, as well as write books, on statistics for geography. At Ordnance Survey, our aim is to create products and services to meet the needs of all our customers, and many of them, whether they are in business or government, are very involved in statistics. We often find that our mapping is used to display, present and analyse those statistics. We work closely with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and I myself have worked with the Board there a lot. We have quite a number of good examples e.g. working with the ONS on analysing neighbourhood statistics despite the shifting of administrative boundaries. In Britain, I believe that we have more shifts to the administrative boundary than anywhere else in the world.

4. As you say, Ordnance Survey does work with the Office for National Statistics, whom are responsible for producing a wide range of economic and social information about England and Wales. The Ordnance Survey in turn is responsible for mapping data, supplied under the Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA), and provides a consistent geographic framework for collating, presenting and analysing this complex data. Could you please tell us more about how this relationship works and its benefit to the public?

Statisticians are not directly employed within Ordnance Survey because the government’s statistical service is embedded in two areas: ONS, who have an office less than 15 miles from here (Southampton, England), and then statisticians who are embedded within the geospatial teams across government e.g. the Department of Communities and Local Government. What we do is help government stakeholders deliver certain data driven projects - a map paints a thousand words and brings statistics to life. For example, we worked on a project with ONS to overlay census data onto rural and urban mapping datasets; this was used for socio-economic analysis.

We also work together on ensuring that the data we produce is easily understood, making available a suite of tools and best practice information that can be used by everybody. This is so that anyone can take advantage of the maximum value gained by the use of location data in comparison with statistical data. We have also worked on the Open Geography Portal which presents complex statistical data visually so that it is both understandable and useful.

What we do is help government stakeholders deliver certain data driven projects - a map paints a thousand words and brings statistics to life.

5. What are the major challenges the Ordnance Survey and the ONS face in representing data to the public?

I suspect we both have the same challenge – ensuring that people interpret the information to mean the same thing that it was collected for. I am fairly confident that whilst ONS create the statistics and are the leading authority, our job is to provide tools and the mapping that can bring those statistics to life. All mapping is generalised otherwise the map of Great Britain would be the size of Great Britain! So it is always about 'Have we made the right decision when generalising the information?'

6. Does the Ordnance Survey have any upcoming major projects to do with statistics that you are able to tell us about?

We are supporting the ONS in looking at what are the lessons learnt from the 2011 census. We want to ensure that the address register that we collect and maintain is adaptive to their needs e.g. we do not collect temporary structures within our standard specification, whereas ONS require these structures if they become dwellings. We have to ensure that the data required by the ONS does not then affect our standard specifications because most customers do not wish for such information. For example, we managed geospatial security for the London 2012 Olympics – this enormous project went way beyond our standard mapping. On the run up to the games we captured and mapped a number of additional features including street furniture and temporary structures such as tented shelters. This data proved to be an essential tool for the emergency services.

7. In October 2011, you were appointed as co-Chair of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management. The new committee reports directly to the UN Economic and Social Council. Professor Paul Cheung, the former Head of the Statistics Division, whom I interviewed last year, informed me that he is working on the integration of information with you (official statistics, geoinformation). Please could you tell us more about this project?

We now have an actual working group focusing on the coordination between geospatial information authorities and the national statistical offices. There are 20+ countries now looking at better integration of geostatistical information at national level and whether there are better ways to represent issues, e.g. whether costs can be taken out, and how best to work together to interlink that information.

8. What will be the benefit of UN-GGIM to statisticians?

There are thoughts that nearly all statistics contain some element of location. Taking that premise, then working together will give the ultimate analyser of that information much more than they’ve ever had before. If you think of statistics on transportation or air quality, they all relate to place so it is all about putting the plan within these different statistics and that’s the key.

We see that there is great synergy between the two and that it will bring great expertise from everybody.

The key for everybody is making sure that there are standards used in the collection of geospatial data, worldwide standards in statistics, and then try to suggest to those with Big Data at their fingertips, that they are collected to good standards. There is a lot of data and it has to be analysed in the right way.

Big Data will bring into the geoinformation industries a lot of new commercial players who will be interested. I do think that it will be driven by business, not technology.

9. Professor Cheung also said that the advent of Big Data will add another dimension to statistics and geoinformation. How can we tackle this?

I think this is very interesting and in fact, I was talking to a head of a commercial company who has a vast number of place-based records and had not thought of himself as a data manager but rather that he provided a service, which in this case was a utility. He had millions of customer records, and within 10 minutes of talking to him he realised that he was managing ‘Big Data’ and that he could mine this information to learn how to better interact with his customers.

The key for everybody is making sure that there are standards used in the collection of geospatial data, worldwide standards in statistics, and then try to suggest to those with Big Data at their fingertips, that they are collected to good standards. There is a lot of data and it has to be analysed in the right way.

Big Data will bring into the geoinformation industries a lot of new commercial players who will be interested. I do think that it will be driven by business, not technology. This businessman I talked to was a ‘classic’, so to speak. He couldn’t believe it, that he had hundreds of people who look after his data but yet he had never had anyone speak to him about the data in the way that I did. I told him that he was sitting on an amazing data source. He replied that the only statistics he was receiving was whether people did not pay or got cut off.

10. You are Honorary Vice-President of The Geographical Association and a member of the Council of the Royal Geographical Society. How do you think the Association and Society have evolved during your time there and adapted to the changing needs of the geographical community?

They have absolutely continued to modernise themselves to meet their changing customer needs. Their customer needs are wide-ranging but what is really good about the Royal Geographical Society is that they support all diverse interests from education and expeditions through to greater understanding of the world we live in. I am always pleased that the message gets out to a wide public and quite often they are able to change people’s perception on worldwide issues. I have seen this myself in lectures they conduct with authorities coming in and saying, “I had no idea”.

The Geographical Association also does an outstanding job in assisting and educating geography teachers and we work closely with them. The careers of geography teachers are much like our own – they can be 30-35 years long and it is really important that they continue to receive professional development.

11. Are there people or events that have been influential in your career?

There have been many. You take little things from different people. As I said, Mrs Dover was absolutely influential and then there was a lecturer named Paul White, who is now the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, but back then he was a young lecturer when I first went to Sheffield. Professor Paul Curran was also a young lecturer in remote sensing and is now the Vice-Chancellor of City University. I then worked in the publishing industry and there were people I worked with who gave me opportunities to win scholarships to develop myself. There were people who gave me the opportunity to set up a business within Pearson and learn excellent business skills. At a later stage, there were several people who encouraged me to join a software company and gain a different perspective, and then we come right to Ordnance Survey where there have been many people in different parts of the organisation as well as ministers, who have all contributed to my career. There is not one person I can single out – there are people whom I admire, whom I can learn from and like us all, we all learn today.

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