GI is worthless?

A rhetorical title.

This week I have been commenting a bit on the Free Our Data web site about an article concerning the cost of OS data and GI software for a social housing provider, you can read the original article or perhaps the discussion on FOD is better.

The author says

In the field I work in housing (asset management) the use of maps would be particularly beneficial. … Being able to link all this into some automapping system would make many tasks I perform so much easier. In addition, visual tools are staggeringly useful when persuading people or explaining things to a new audience.

Of course, to do all this, we need a certain amount of geographical data. There’s the maps themselves and then there’s geocoding our properties. Which leads to enquiries like the above. No doubt we could afford that, but in good conscience can we really spend £16k on what is effectively a glorified A to Z? £16k after all could supply brand new kitchens to four families, or ensure 8 homes have brand new central heating systems which will cut fuel bills and keep people warm should the weather change. We have to consider the opportunity costs.

The italics are mine.

Now on the FOD site I was trying to correct a few inaccuracies such as this is about a Housing Association not a Local Authority (Hence the visible change to the title – ta Charles) and the possibility that the quoted prices may be wrong as I think there is an OS deal for Housing Associations but that is all by the by – just me being pernickety.

The interesting question that the article prompts is “What value do we place on Geographic Information?” DL compares the cost of GI to 4 kitchens etc and says that “we have to consider the opportunity costs

Well I agree except I might draw different conclusions. Describing a GIS as a “glorified A-Z” is really missing the point. If GI is just a few pretty pictures that will impress your bosses or colleagues then go for the kitchens. If making “many tasks I perform so much easier” means that you can do more productive tasks and deliver better value to the organisation that you work for and its clients then very possibly it is a good investment. A lot of housing associations are adopting the combination of OS data and GI technology to improve their services to clients and some that I know of have spent a lot more than 16k! Have a look at the Housing Associations section of the OS web site for more details, a couple of quotes will illustrate the point:

“for every pound spent on geographic information system you get two pounds back, after one year”

Also “return of investment for geographic information system is very difficult to quantify. However, accepting that some of the efficiencies are non-cashable (as describe by the Gershon principles) and therefore any quantity attached to them is subjective, the £2 return is a conservative estimation based on time savings and “point of contact” performance”

No doubt scale is a big factor in these calculations of return on investment and very possibly a full MasterMap license may be overkill for a small association. But I believe that for many organisations there is a great return on investment in GI – we have clients at all scales and levels who can attest to that.

As someone who works in the GI industry mainly in public sector I know how important it is to deliver value to our clients but I don’t believe that we need to give our time and products away for nothing just because budgets are tight. I think what bugs me a bit about this article is the implication that the choice has to be between kitchens and maps – of course it doesn’t. If we get it right the client can have maps that improve efficiency and allow them to have more kitchens AND central heating systems! Its called a win-win