“Where’s the beef in GIS”?

March 29, 2012

All Hazards, Geospatial, Standards

I recently tweeted a link to an article published in Spatial Source, entitled ”  Geospatial information GIS to revolutionise flood insurance, with quotes from  Simon Thompson (Director, Commercial Marketing at ESRI  in the USA).
“Mr Thompson said the spatial industry has traditionally been more focused on technology instead of information sharing, but this is now changing.” (Bold emphasis is mine)
“Local governments and the insurance industry is now recognising the value of the information that lies behind GIS technology,” he said.
“As a result, the focus has swung onto the information product and the people it serviced, rather than the technology behind it. In the process, pressure is now building on local governments and developers for better thought-out development planning and approvals, and to make the information available to residents, both existing and potential ones.”
This may be a flattering assessment of the state of enlightenment in Australia and the example offered to demonstrate this seismic shift is the arguably well-endowed and hyper-motivated City of Brisbane.
For the rest of us, it’s more a case of

“We, the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have now done so much for so long with so little, we are now capable of doing anything with nothing.”

— Unknown

Still, I support the intention and tweeted the article across to the #In and #Yam. I received a few tweets back about “the data” but otherwise not much interest, except for a comment from a colleague at the Department of Community Safety, via Yammer:
“One step further – Mixing geo info with an assessment of an individual property’s building components to come up with a rating for insurance purposes. http://edgeenvironment.com.au/the-path-to-resilience-ratings-for-australian-buildings/
The link refers to a project, a tool – Building resilience Rating Tool or BRRT.  Hot on the google trail, I find it is being managed by Climate Risk,
“.. the Commonwealth Government’s Climate Change Risk Management Panel of Service Providers and Queensland Government’s Panel for Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Policy and Climate Change Adaptation Policy advisory services through the EPA. “
(perhaps not folowers of the “plain english” movement)
The BRRT uses data on building material to rate the “resilience” of a residential building.  This part is not really new, except that in the past insurers took a more one size fits all approach. Think of those annoying check-boxes on building materials when you apply for home insurance:  Either we can look forward to checking more boxes on future forms or else there is an expectation from insurers that the councils are going to make this information available to them, in a standardised format, at an individual street address level.  Presumably this construction/asset data would pre-fill when you phoned for your insurance quote and gave an address.  This requires  shared specifications standards and information exchange standards to support aggregation and maintenance of  data on building material.  This aspect alone is fairly daunting.
The other component of the BRRT  appears to be that insurers are now alive to the idea that GIS is useful , because ” risk varies within a specific geographic context and hazard type.” Darn! Do you think? Maybe after the fires and floods those underwriter dudes dragged the Aussie Insurers over to London or Singapore and asked some rude questions, such as “So, can you please explain again exactly how you assessed the bushfire/flood/storm risk when you issued those policies?”
To be fair, when it comes to information and evidence-based decision-making in Australia, insurers have not been the only fantasists. I’ve observed a lack of maturity in many sectors in Australia.  Working for the emergency services it was a constant challenge to obtain suitable quality data at a state level. The fundamentals (roads, property, address, admin etc) are generally respectable and based on solid data management. Outside of that it is a minefield.  Data as basic on the names and locations of hospitals, aged-care facilities or a multitude of other features is often difficult to access.  Over the past decade some sectors have received generous government endowments for information sharing under the auspices of “Counter Terrorism” or “Critical Infrastructure Protection”, but I’m unconvinced that the resulting cabals have produced any content for the public good. We do excel in bureaucratic obfuscation.

The willing, the knowing and the able join forces..

On a more hopeful note, if the interested parties – the insurers, emergency services, government, private sector and many others –  do start to ‘get it’, join forces and pool resources, the obstacles can be overcome. In the interim there are plenty of vendors willing to capitalize on the overall dysfunction, at a suitable hourly rate. And so the money churns. I sometimes wonder if one day we’ll discover that the entire Australian economy is a giant Ponzi scheme.
[Rear vision mirror: The year is 2001, I’m in a meeting with senior insurance industry representatives.  Hey, I say, “How about we, like, share data and stuff, we’ll do geospatial analysis for a statewide bushfire risk assessment.”  Nay, say they (men in grey), “Entirely irrelevant. All we need is burglary rates, by postcode. All that the other stuff? Fire? Flood? “actuarially insignificant”. Oy Vey. ]
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About yvonnert

Extensive experience working in government spatial data infrastructure. Over ten years as a bridge maker in emergency services, with strong partnering skills providing leadership for spatial information strategy.

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