A key “weapon” against the pandemic has been geospatial data and the systems that help us to interpret it. Never has our sense of ‘where’ (or the ability of maps to dominate primetime television) been greater.
Within the built environment, the huge potential of location data to improve the way that national infrastructure is planned, built and managed was outlined in the government’s Geospatial strategy. 
Here we talk to our Geospatial Intelligence team lead, Chris Balmbra and his colleague, Matt Margiotta, about maps, major project delivery and mountain escapades.

Let’s start with the basics – what is geospatial intelligence and what skills are required to excel in it?

It is essentially the merging of cartography, statistical analysis and database technology. It’s about the capture, storing, manipulation and analysis of all types of geographically referenced data – combined with other types of data – to unlock insights and help with decision making.

(Chris): I came into it with a Geology degree – but also with an absolute passion and love for maps. I’m afraid to say I’m someone who spends hours trawling through Google maps and Google Earth for fun.

(Matt): I read Geography and then went on to complete a Master’s in geographic information and the climate.

Aside from the academic qualifications, strong problem-solving, patience and communication skills are a must.

Why has this field come under the spotlight in such a big way in recent years?

(Chris): I think it’s part of the broader understanding of the value of data as a resource and an asset – the rise of “Big Data” – and partly the result of the growing demand for higher-performing infrastructure. Geospatial data has the potential to unlock huge value for developers, asset owners and operators by providing them with vital context to inform their decisions.

It has also been greatly helped with the launch, by the Government’s Geospatial Commission, of the Geospatial Strategy, earlier this year. That was a hugely important milestone in building an understanding of the value of geospatial data.

It also highlighted the really quite remarkable gaps in some of our geospatial intelligence as a nation – like there being no current single map of the underground pipe and cable network in the UK.

The announcement earlier this year of the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR) will not only drive efficiencies and mitigate against further utility strikes on-site, but also ensure that future construction and infrastructure projects will have access to better quality data.

What role is geospatial intelligence playing on the major projects we support at PCSG?

Through our interpretation and analysis and the visualisation skills we provide, we help asset and infrastructure owners to gain access, at pace, to data which can help with strategic decision-making, driving efficiencies and answering key operational questions.

We take the data – whether vector data (a list of values with a point defined by a pair of coordinates) or raster data (similar to a digital photograph with the map area subdivided into pixels) and we use the tools we have to support effective viewing, editing and analysis of it.

We provide advanced processing and we also have the capability, through our two in-house Geo Servers to effectively generate maps and share data with our clients.

What does the average day look like for our Geospatial Intelligence team?

We work across a number of projects and support various clients: Our role might be setting up and maintaining project databases, undertaking quality checks on data where clients might not have the ability to fully comprehend or know how to read, analyse and manipulate it; maintaining asset data within a Geographic Information System (GIS) Common Data Environment and undertaking advanced processing and manipulation of large datasets.

For some of the major projects we are supporting, we provide technical support for the on-site teams.

On HS2, for example, we are helping the project team to gain the maximum benefit and value from GeoConnect+ – our solution which connects, integrates and enables visualisation of the vast volume of asset and project data being used and procured on the programme. GC+ enables assets to be viewed on the map interface, layered with open datasets.

What sort of problems do you help to solve for our clients?

Our work essentially helps to facilitate the understanding of a large scale project – providing both the overview of a project, the macro view and the real nitty-gritty, micro detail.

What’s your favourite part of the role?

(Chris):  I like to see components being split out into their constituent parts and understanding how a data set is formed and utilising it in more than one way. With the source data, we can do so much with what we have.  I find it really satisfying.

(Matt): Personally, I think my favourite aspect as a GIS specialist at PCSG is the large spectrum of data we work with – from key infrastructure to meteorological data.

Getting out in the field is a big element of  academic life in this arena – do you miss that now, having swapped it for eight hours at a screen each day?

(Chris) I did relish the field element of my academic study. Part of my degree was a mapping project – mapping 25sqkm of Snowdonia. I lived in a rented room at the base of the mountain with two fellow students, going out onto the wet, freezing cold mountain every day for almost two months.

There was no internet connection, just a small tv we hooked up to a PlayStation so we could play DVDs (and Fifa!) in the evening. Exhausting, horrendous and yet, looking back, an awful lot of fun and an amazing experience and so satisfying once I had completed the project.

(Matt): I think my answer for this depends on the type of field trip. I do not miss plodding through wet bogs and taking measurements of the gradient and channel size at the source of the River Wye and Severn, in mid Wales. However, I do miss analysing lichen next to a glacier in Vent, Austria during a field trip in my second year of university.

I am now happy that I have all these amazing memories, no matter if they were enjoyable at the time or not.

How do you keep abreast of developments in the sector and promote it to the next generation?

(Chris): I have been both an active STEM ambassador and a member of the British Cartographic Society.  I am passionate about making young people aware of the huge range of roles and the possibilities within the built environment sector.

(Matt): Through LinkedIn, I like to stay update with both the technologic advancements (e.g. new software capabilities) and cartographers whose work I appreciate visually.

The team is, of course, working from home. How have you maintained a sense of wellbeing during the two lockdowns?

(Chris): I worked from home a lot already and because my wife is a keyworker (a midwife), our toddler continued at nursery so it has been less different for us than for others in some ways.

I am a keen narrow-boater and during that lovely period of the summer, when lockdown one ended, we would take little one around the canals and up the locks on the boat. He had his little buoyancy aid and he just absolutely loved it. It was a total escape from everything that’s going on.

(Matt): During lockdown, I’d say the biggest key for me staying positive and happy has been trying to still stay active outside (following guidelines). Mountain biking is the main activity that I do with my housemate Caseypegg (a biking nickname as he crashes a lot), the banter and ability to see the ‘real world’ makes me feel free during these ‘locked up’ times.

What future developments are you excited about in this space?

(Chris): Much better sharing and quality of data. At the moment, there is no incentive for any project to share their data. One project I worked on, they had very limited data to work from to identify underground utilities. They still had to dig a hole and make sure the data was correct against the models.  In the digital information age, it is essential for those delivering our infrastructure to have easy access to accurate data about utilities and so on.

(Matt): I would say, I am most excited about the impact to GIS data following major advancements in satellite technology. This will likely lead to a larger availability of higher resolution data, meaning that DEMs (digital elevation models) for example will be more realistic- which excites me.

Images right: 1 – Chris Balmbra 2 – Matt Margiotta

For more information on our GIS services and how we might help your organisation unlock the full value of data to support better project outcomes, please contact Olly.Thomas@pcsg.co.uk