Scotland was a pioneer in the geospatial industry, but how can we take the next step and make geospatial an important contributor to the Scottish Economy today and tomorrow?

AGI Scotland

By the early 1960s the University of Glasgow had become a world-class centre for cartography, and university courses in the use of computers in geography were beginning to appear by the end of that decade, ahead of much of the world.  Researchers at the University of Edinburgh were using computer methods to analyse agricultural census data by 1970 and soon after the Tourism and Recreation Information Package (TRIP) was further formalising computer-based spatial analysis.

In 1966, the foundations of the GIMMS system were laid in Edinburgh, which was being marketed commercially by 1973 and by the 1980s hundreds of licences had been sold across the UK, Europe, North America and Australia.  Edinburgh-based Ferranti produced the world’s first commercial land information system, which was delivered to the city of Basel in 1977 and to Munich two years later.

By the 1980s staff at the University of Edinburgh had produced the world’s first graphical map cataloguing system, which was sold commercially, together with the first GIS to store all of its data in a database management system, and then the Edinburgh Masters programme in GIS came in 1986, again a world first.  This has gone on to produce almost 1000 graduates.

History is great, but what has happened since?  Well most of the geospatial software industry is centred in North America, most UK-based geospatial service and data providers are to be found in the South of England.  For a host of reasons, Scotland has lost its early lead.

For many years a number of us have been saying Scotland could and should again be a world leader.  We have some advantages; there are a number of small start-ups which have been successful here and Scottish universities are producing quality graduates, who sadly often seek jobs well beyond Scotland.

The Scottish Government has long been interested in geospatial, they produced a GI Strategy in 2005, and have indeed also been innovators in areas such as geospatial web services, but this strategy didn’t seem to make much of a difference to growth of the sector. 

In 2019, Ordnance Survey and Registers of Scotland established Geovation Scotland, building on OS’s successful initiative based in London. This aims to help “unlock greater value from our national geospatial, land & property data assets by supporting entrepreneurs, innovators and developers bring new location data and property services to market”.  The Geospatial Commission, while based in London as an arm of UK Government, is also bringing benefits to Scotland.

More recently, the success of the space industry in Scotland and the realisation that the data produced needs geospatial methods to efficiently store, manage, analyse and disseminate the results, has brought the interest of government, in the form of Scottish Enterprise (SE). 

What we need is a business environment which allows innovators to succeed and grow, better connectivity between the supply and demand side for geospatial data and services along with a realisation of the benefits Scotland can offer in this area.  To assist this, SE, with funding support from the Scottish Government and Geospatial Commission, have proposed a Geospatial Network Integrator to bring together and strengthen the relationships in our ecosystem to support development and growth.  SE have successfully sponsored network integrators in Biotechnology, Fintech and Space. AGI Scotland have been strongly supporting these efforts and will be central to the proposed network.

While between Universities in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, we probably educate more geospatial professionals per capita than any other country in the world, this is mostly at postgraduate Masters level, at the very end of an educational journey.  We have to address other forms of education, particular more vocational education and the use of apprenticeships in our field.  This is important as it will bring a new cohort into the workforce, highlighting geospatial as a career choice for school-leavers, but also because there is a demand for more locally-grown employees, committed to Scottish employers and developing an industry in this country.  AGI Scotland are taking a lead in this area, attempting to forge partnerships.

With the Covid19 pandemic creating a surge of interest in location data, the importance of geospatial intelligence to government, businesses and consumers is greater than ever. The opportunities for geospatial to fundamentally influence Scotland’s economic, social and environmental wellbeing are closer than ever if we can grasp the momentum.

Bruce Gittings
Chair, AGI-Scotland