The language of ‘geospatial’ – are we missing a trick?

We all know how powerful and potentially world-changing our knowledge and skills are. But how does anyone else if we fail to communicate it effectively.

It’s often mooted across our industry that we get bogged down in idiosyncratic language and ‘tech speak’, that your average person cannot possibly comprehend nor understand on face value. The amount of times I’ve debated using words like ‘spatial’, ‘geo-spatial’, ‘location-based’, ‘geographic’ – only to realise that any of them will ultimately need more explanation. And in a fast-paced world, where people simply do not have the time to read up on things and where there is so much competition for attention and resource, there is a feeling that our use of language has been holding us back. Certainly, within my sector (public), I have seen myself and my peers struggle to persuade our senior decision makers that they really should be investing in geospatial data management, technology and resourcing. And we now have serious concerns that many organisations are simply doing away with these resources because they simply do not realise the potential.  We all know how powerful and potentially world-changing our knowledge and skills are. But how does anyone else if we fail to communicate it effectively. However, we’re certainly not alone in this regard with many technical industries having the same struggles.

But there are, quite evidently, some relatively new geospatial companies that are having huge amounts of money poured into them and doing incredibly well – think the likes of Google (maps), Uber (taxi service), Deliveroo (home delivered meals) etc. Is there something that these companies are doing, with regard to language and communication, that the rest of us can learn from?

Thankfully, there are new technologies becoming available that allow us to actually quantify, evidence and potentially address this suspected phenomena. One tech start-up that the AGI have recently been speaking to is Relative Insight. Born out of an academic cybersecurity project, which was looking to identify people who weren’t who they said they were in chat forums, this company is now working with some of the biggest companies in the world (Disney and Unilever) on their communication and marketing strategies.

The way their technology works is by taking samples of language and text from any given group or organisation and comparing them to, either another cohort, or to standard English language patterns (that they have been amassing a model for since their outset). The analytical outputs from these comparisons shows where (and by how much) there are significant differences in things like word use, topics, grammar, emotion and phrases. Theoretically, this should shine a light on how an interested party can gain insight to how they might be failing to communicate with their intended audience.

Relative Insight kindly gave us access to their tool and pool of analysts to take an initial look at our sector’s use of language. We took a host of web page content from some of the more traditional geospatial industry big players, including AGI. We also took some language from the websites of a few of those relatively new, large and successful geospatial companies (Uber and Deliveroo). What we found was very interesting (Relative Insight had never seen such marked differences in use of grammar) and confirmed many of our initial suspicions.

What was immediately apparent was that traditional geospatial companies are much more focused on data and, perhaps consequently, language is very matter of fact and perhaps uninspiring to a non-GIS community. They talk as though people are already very interested in them, though, being so specialised, likely miss out on providing wider appeal to a bigger, less specialist audience. There also seems to be a consistent (almost self-absorbed) focus on professionality, with us discussing and referencing our industry as a whole constantly, which perhaps emphasises that feeling of exclusivity and inaccessibility to the wider community.

What was very apparent with those newer geospatial companies was that they appear to be far more customer focused (using many personal pronouns). They tend to use language that conveys personality and opinion (adjectives like ‘very’, ‘so’, ‘best’, ‘finest’). They also focus on individuals and the interaction and benefits they can expect from their services. These companies use more ‘doing’ words (verbs), indicating that they are active and take actions that affect the world around them.

Admittedly, conducting this comparison of companies and organisations is perhaps slightly unfair as the traditional companies do offer different products and services to those newer companies. But, I think there is enough in this very basic, initial analysis to suggest the we could all do with thinking more about how we use language to describe what we do to engage a wider audience. Certainly, we all need to refocus on who our target audience for our communications and marketing are and how they tend to speak. And companies like Relative Insight, who come to this with a completely independent and non-geospatial hat on, can no doubt help us all out with that.

Author: Simon Roberts; AGI Scotland Executive