Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda is the Public Policy and Government Relations Manager at Google South Africa. Image: Supplied.
JOHANNESBURG - Geospatial services like digital maps are taken for granted in today’s connected era as useful tools that can help you navigate, and redirect you around traffic hot spots. The benefits they provide go deeper than that, however. 

The Singapore Land Authority (SLA) has built a mapping platform - OneMap - that anyone can access and use to deliver services more effectively. A number of social and health services are using it to deliver much needed aid and support to the needy and elderly in the island city-state.

Journalists across the continent are using maps data and digital mapping services to bring context and analysis to the stories they tell, whether of asbestos in Gauteng schools or overlaying data on police station locations with crime statistics to bring depth to crime reporting.

Consumers use maps in a number of ways, according to a study conducted by Alpha Beta (commissioned by Google), to find hospitals and restaurants, navigate traffic, check store opening hours or simply learn about geography and architecture. 

Businesses use maps differently - for market research (where is a good location to open a new outlet?), to improve their public profile by being listed with mapping services and including information customers need - like opening hours - and to boost sales using geo-targetting.

Whether it’s GPS and fleet management systems moving goods and people or local search applications connecting small businesses to consumers, geospatial technology such as online maps aren’t just useful tools, they’re essential to driving economic growth and jobs. The Aplha Beta study estimates that geospatial technology generates $400 Billion in revenue, $550 billion in consumer value, and up to 12 million jobs globally.

That said, the Alpha Beta report found a variance in the benefits realised from geospatial services from region to region, largely due to policy differences. 

For governments, attitudes to geospatial services vary. In some countries geospatial data laws place restrictions on who can collect mapping data, where that data has to be stored and who can publish maps using that data. Concerns about sensitive military and other locations drive government censorship of imagery and base map data. Also common are privacy concerns around how data is collected and used.

Digital maps provide powerful tools for policymakers to ensure the safety of their citizens. As the number of cars worldwide is set to double to 2 billion by 2030, traffic would increase urban air pollution, projected to become the top environmental cause of premature mortality by 2050. 

Geospatial services can mitigate this issue by suggesting alternative routes and by highlighting travel times if commuters were to cycle, walk, or use public transport. 53 percent of internet users surveyed said digital maps have increased their willingness to use public transport. They also have potential to reduce global CO2 emissions by up to 1,686 million tons, or 5 percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions in 2016.

 An ambulance can reach a patient faster and firefighters get to a wildfire more quickly, thanks to geospatial services. In India, geospatial services could cut response times for ambulances by 3.5 minutes and for fire brigades by 2 minutes. These time savings can save lives: research shows that every 10 percent reduction in emergency response time lowers the chance of fatalities by 7 percent. 

Geospatial technologies can also help save lives when a natural disaster strikes. Emergency response teams already use GIS technology to model high-risk areas that could flood during torrential rains. Digital maps are also being used to prepare for typhoons and other destructive storms, to show residents the best evacuation routes or identify fuel shortages. But for the benefits of geospatial services to be fully realised, policy change is required. 

Governments can enable the promotion, adoption and implementation of the emerging applications of geospatial technology and data through policies that support the collection, sharing, and use of geospatial data and services in order to help ensure data availability, accessibility and quality. 
It is also imperative for governments to participate in events such as the Geospatial World Forum to understand best practices to facilitate the development of a successful local geospatial industry. These include encouraging the adoption of geospatial data in informing decisions in urban planning, health and emergency services, disaster management and environmental protection; modernising technical infrastructure required for data collection and dissemination and incentivising private sector participation.

Google was interested in understanding what type of real economic growth and jobs geospatial technology as a whole drives globally. We discovered that geospatial services not only make life easier - by helping people turn their intentions of finding a place into actions of getting there - but also support the global economy by creating tangible benefits for businesses and consumers. 

Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda is the Public Policy and Government Relations Manager at Google South Africa.