National Mapping Agencies Redefining Their Role

The role and scope of national mapping agencies is undergoing a seminal transformation, from a basic mapping mandate to providing digital services and solutions to all stakeholders.

For years, national mapping and geospatial information agencies (NMGAs) have struggled to understand their future direction in a fast-changing geospatial ecosystem. A host of global conferences and symposiums, including the Geospatial World Forum, Cambridge Conference and United Nations World Geospatial Information Congress, have all explored this theme in recent years.

Is authoritative, up-to-date, foundation geospatial data the future or should mapping agencies be looking to provide knowledge services and solutions? How do government-owned NMGAs fit in a World in which industry can profitably supply the data and services for many use cases, and where the wider digital ecosystem is increasingly incorporating location into its workflows? This article, along with NMGA leader guest columns, explores these questions.

Topographical maps are primarily used for recreational purposes or to assist with urban planning, mining, emergency management and more. Courtesy: N.Alavidze/

The NMGA ecosystem

Defining the future role of national geospatial information agencies should start with an understanding of the changing digital ecosystem. The United Nations Future Geospatial Information Ecosystem document explores this from a government perspective. The Geospatial Knowledge Infrastructure (GKI) concept, a partnership between like-minded bodies including Geospatial World and the United Nations Statistics Division, looks more broadly at an ecosystem where data and applications combine to deliver user-led knowledge and solutions for across government and industry.

Geospatial and wider digital ecosystems are converging. This has been evidenced by Geospatial World’s research during the GKI project, where examination of eight industry sectors amply demonstrated the widespread adoption of geospatial technology and data in digital workflows. As Ed Parsons, Google’s Geospatial Technologist, said in 2020, there’s a bit of geo in everything.

Ordnance Survey & Mobileye Create New Roadside Data Collection; Courtesy: Ordnance

The soaring user base is naturally complemented by a growing data and technology provider base, of which NMGAs constitute a small part. Some NMGAs, such as UK’s Ordnance Survey, have recognized this trend and established, with partners, a geospatial start-up accelerator led by Carly Morris called Geovation, which has set a global example.

Increasingly, users leverage Earth Observation data, AI and the Cloud to create knowledge. India’s Blue-Sky Analytics is a geospatial data intelligence company building an API-based catalogue of environmental datasets to support climate change decision making. EO companies today are aiming to solve specific problems rather than providing data.

Technology change is leading to greater adoption of combined digital and geospatial technologies, along with the consumption of location data, providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for NMGAs to transform collection, management and data access.

This gives a particular opportunity for developing nations left behind by the growing digital divide, a point often reiterated by the United Nations’ Dr. Greg Scott.

Technology used to map Lusaka, Zambia is replicable in other African cities to upgrade informal settlements and achieve sustainable urban expansion; Courtesy: Ordnance

The real technology change is not geospatial, but AI, Cloud, everpresent connectivity and Web 3.0 which combined allows the processing and curation of decentralized digital information in real-time. Web 3.0 goes further; it offers the opportunity to make geospatial agency data and services findable machine to machine. As autonomy sets in that bodes well for geospatial data consumers, who are no longer just human searching for data through a browser but increasingly machines.

Nadine Alameh, CEO of the Open Geospatial Consortium, argues that the Metaverse is geospatial. Dr. Lesley Arnold, Director Geospatial Frameworks Ltd, goes further and coined the phrase ‘Geoverse’. Whatever the name, geospatial information is a 4D foundation to the metaverse, potentially providing a scaffolding and truth in that world and giving NMGAs a potential role.

New business models?

The days of geospatial agencies serving data and throwing it out there are over. To transform, geospatial agencies must understand their funders and customers and build a sustainable business model based on both.

The user, human or machine, has a choice – geospatial agencies are not the only suppliers of data, services and solutions. Transformation is not easy; all technology companies are constantly adapting in a rapidly changing user environment. But it is necessary.

Technology change is leading to greater adoption of combined digital and geospatial technologies, along with the consumption of location data, providing a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity for NMGAs to transform collection, management and data access.

In December 2022, the United Nations made public its approach for countries to prepare action plans to improve geospatial information management for national, social and economic good. The approach supports countries consider a wide-ranging array of stakeholders to understand national priorities, as only then can a country gain insights into the geospatial information actions it needs to take, many of which will fall on NMGAs. Supported by the SDG data Alliance, this approach is being currently followed by 13 nations across the Pacific, Africa, and Latin America, with others seeking to do the same.

Across the world, mapping agencies are getting closer to users. The Georgian National Agency of Public Registry (NAPR) is an example. At the recent United Nations World Geospatial Information Congress, NAPR’s Mari Khardziana made clear how this is opening new opportunities for the agency and its customers, resulting in government funding for data maintenance.

But what are users actually seeking?

You would be forgiven for thinking geospatial data, but Ingrid Vanden Berghe, Director General Belgium’s National Geospatial Institute and Eric Loubier, Director General Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation, argue differently

in their columns in this edition of Geospatial World. They opt for solutions to user challenges. How those solutions are achieved and with what services, data and algorithms, is not relevant to the user provided the solution or answer can be trusted in the context of the challenge.

This is the direction for the wider geospatial ecosystem. Consider the pressing need for climate change solutions, which is a focus of great minds. GHGSat established earth observation satellites to provide emission monitoring solutions that help carbon-intensive industries and governments achieve their emissions targets.

Geospatial data derived for one solution is reusable for many sectors. User challenges should absolutely dominate NMGA thinking, the more problems solved then the greater the data demand and the more sustainable is the data creation and management.

Geospatial data is only a part of the solution to often complex challenges, so NMGAs should understand how they fit into a value chain in any sector. The 2022 GKI Phase 2 report describes the geospatial contribution to sector workflows, including that by NMGAs, and links the eight sectors to the sustainable development goals.

Geospatial data derived for one solution is reusable for many sectors. User challenges should absolutely dominate NMGA thinking, the more problems solved then the greater the data demand and the more sustainable is the data creation and management.

As the author did, when in the British Army, loaning experts to key users enables users to realize value and consequently invest. Geosciences Australia has loaned staff to government departments for years; in both cases, resource availability restricts this to the highest priority users where the greatest benefit can be accrued. In return, the geospatial community is better placed to collaborate.

Eric Loubier expresses his view on solutions in his column, but he is not alone and some NMGAs in developing nations are doing the same. Guatemala’s National Institute for Seismology, Vulcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology delivers knowledge in the form of risk mapping, which directly supports decision-making.

For NMGAs seeking to transform, the first imperative is to be closer to national priorities, key stakeholders, major government programs and users. This derived understanding has led Norway’s NMGA, Statens Kartvert, to give increased operational priority to maritime data and solutions.

Once mapping agencies understand what solutions or data are required to solve user problems, then they can adapt to a ‘fit for use’ approach. Just as NMGA’s competitors have done. ‘Fit for use’ both applies to quality, in its widest sense, and its usability, which impacts data design.

Before reaching decisions on foundation geospatial information governance in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, GASGI sought to understand users’ data requirements based upon the challenges they face. Dr. Vanessa Lawrence CB, former Director General, Ordnance Survey, supported this work.

In understanding the needs of the ecosystem, NMGA leaders can work with government to determine where they have a role and what can be left to industry in an open market.

Paradoxically, NMGAs do have a role in developing industry, whether through partnerships that enable a greater variety of solutions to be delivered to the market or, in developing nations, to help generate new geospatial information industries. Alina Sushchyk, from Ukraine StateGeoCadastre, made this point at the 2022 Geospatial World Forum.

StateGeoCadastre has pursued this over recent years, actively contracting data production to the private sector whilst providing support to help build the private geospatial sector to move from maps to data using GIS technologies.

Embracing technological opportunity

The second imperative is to embrace technological opportunities to create and manage fit-for-use data in ways that helps achieve the solutions that customers seek.

Technology enables access. An increasing number of NMGAs make topographic mapping available to businesses and citizens as open, free, data. Swisstopo’s internationally renowned free map app is both an open map viewing platform and a tool to help people pursue outdoor activities, from snow sports to aviation.

Ordnance Survey and Mobileye Mapping Britain’s Roadside Infrastructure; Courtesy: Ordnance Survey

Georgia did the same – the 2022 launch of NAPR’s Georgia Maps app increased awareness of NAPR’s national offer multi-fold and increased interest in funding the agency’s output and wider NSDI.

Connectivity and automated data integration are driving value so NMGAs needs to develop data access further to make it ‘machine findable’ and automatically accessible through APIs. Dr. Lesley Arnold offers that NMGAs should create linked data to help this.

what3words has announced that six national mapping agencies have
adopted 3-word addresses.

Technology enables continuously updated foundation data, digital twins and HD mapping. The combination of EO and AI, espoused by Eric Loubier in his column, gives an opening for developing nations.

An Ordnance Survey-partnered project combined automated AI processes and imagery provided by the Zambia Survey Department to generate a new base map of Lusaka, reducing the cost of geospatial information considerably. Indeed, Ordnance Survey has pushed the boundaries further and in 2018, with partners, tested the automated data processing and updating of national geospatial databases based on data collected by Mobileye sensors mounted on standard utility company vehicles that regularly drive the streets of UK. HD maps need this level of update, and better. But the same principle applies everywhere.

Rocsanda Pahola Mendéz Mata, Director National Geographic Institute of Guatemala stresses her drive to give users “access to information faster and digital to the point that we can afford it”.

NMGAs do not have to own bespoke technology in a bespoke architecture to benefit. This can stifle innovation and add expense when industry is far more adaptive, has scale and does listen to users.

Ordnance Survey, which turned to Esri to implement a fully automated mapping architecture, exemplifies this change. The cloud makes this even more appealing, although it can never be the only solution whilst connectivity and power supply remain challenges in many developing nations.

The balance of NMGA skills is shifting from traditional survey to data and solutions, with data scientists being an obvious addition to embrace AI, data integration and customer-focused solutions. Embracing technology is only possible if NMGAs develop their people and recruit additional skills to take advantage of the opportunities. Global institutions such as FIG have role to play in helping NMGAs shift emphasis.

New role of data?

What does all this mean for the concept of ‘authoritative data’, previously the raison d’etre of many NMGAs?

From a user perspective the word ‘trusted’ carries more weight than ‘authoritative’. Simply put, fit-for-use trusted useable data (which may or may not be authoritative) and trusted algorithms tend to provide trusted solutions.

Ensuring the flow of trusted geospatial data to and from governments, from whatever source, is one role NMGA leaders are adopting: Belgium’s NGI is doing this. But ‘authority’ remains relevant. For mostly, managing and making available national reference systems is fundamental to spatial data integration, far more so for autonomy. Position, Navigation and Time (PNT) is increasingly considered an element of critical national infrastructure; GKI recommends that governments have a PNT strategy. The new UN Global Geodetic Center of Excellence hosted by Germany, will help all nations benefit.

In September 2022, Australia and New Zealand initiated the Southern Positioning Augmentation Network (SouthPAN), awarding an AUD$1.18 billion contract to Lockheed Martin to help realize more than $7.6 billion in demonstrable economic benefits. SouthPAN provides accurate, reliable and instant positioning services across all of Australia and New Zealand’s land and maritime zones, providing ten centimetres accuracy without the need for internet connectivity.

The balance of NMGA skills is shifting from traditional survey to data and solutions, with data scientists being an obvious addition to embrace AI, data integration and customer focussed solutions.

Overall, the term ‘fit-for-use’ is gaining ground. This still implies authority in data, products and solutions where these are necessary, particularly where life or significant financial impacts are at stake, and thus remains part of the NMGA offer. Safety of life at seas is a particular example, where hydrographic agencies can carry liability if they knowingly endanger life and the environment. Roads and land navigation data may fall in the same bracket with Level 5, full automation. Cadastral data also needs to be authoritative given the impact of getting it wrong.

An increasing number of countries are adopting geospatial registers which are, by definition, authoritative. In UK, the Unique Property Reference Number is now mandated for use across Government, enabling integrated solutions. In the Netherlands, a leader in registers, the Cadastre, Land Registry and Mapping Agency maintains the cadastre and topography registers and provides a facility to access wider government spatial registers.

Supporting the move towards solutions, the Agency recently combined national building and address registers with high-resolution imagery and GeoAI techniques to provide policymakers a national understanding of the potential of solar energy and interventions necessary to achieve some of that potential.

The UK’s Geospatial Commission, directed by Thalia Baldwin, has adopted the FAIR principles and argues that geospatial data is better if Q-FAIR: Quality (fit for purpose), Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and (Re)useable. In this regard, NMGAs should declare the quality of their data to assist users to make better decisions and continue their move towards APIs.

In time, NMGA geospatial data should be as easy to find on the internet as textual data, leading to true knowledge on demand. Industry can continue to support OGC and W3C collaboration to promote this.

Partnerships and collaboration

If change is a pre-requisite for national mapping agencies, then partners stand ready to assist. This conjures up thoughts of public-private partnerships (PPP), but these are a small subset, fully explored by the World Geospatial Industry Council in its 2021 policy report on the subject.

Emphasis on partnerships is the norm across the private sector, often to combine technologies or technologies and data that provide user-specific solutions. It needs to be for NMGAs. Partnerships are stressed both by GKI and the United Nations Integrated Geospatial Information Framework.

Partnerships offer NMGAs benefits in managing fit-for-use and accessible geospatial data. Three examples point to opportunities: Firstly, through its Map Editing Partnership program, TomTom partners with companies in logistics and on-demand industries to share the map editing process to ensure up-to-date maps.

Secondly, in 2021, Canadian company Ecopia partnered with Airbus, gaining access to Airbus’ global 50cm resolution imagery database, and applying AI systems to extract local geospatial vector data at global scale.

These Ecopia Vector Maps are available within the Airbus OneAtlas Platform. Thirdly, Geosciences Australia is expanding its national network of GNSS reference stations, a network of stations that are owned and operated by both the Commonwealth and third parties.

Partnerships can be innovative. In the USA, USGS has created a partnership programme to build affordable Lidar coverage of the country, soliciting proposals from potential government and private sector partners.

One successful proposal, in Arizona, saw private industry collect data at a higher resolution for its own uses and provided USGS a lower-resolution subset for a heavily discounted price. NMGAs can enable such partnerships by expressing a clear route. Through its NGA Partnership Intermediary Agreement, the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has published a clear innovation, confidence building and assurance process for potential partners to follow.

For industry, assisting a national mapping agency provide better data, services and solutions has reciprocal benefits. Equally, in developing nations, industry and donors can make single-use project geospatial data available to NMGAs who can then repurpose it for wider national benefit.


The rapidly changing geospatial ecosystem applies to NMGAs just as any other organization, and gives them great opportunity. Four imperatives are highlighted in this article that should feature in all NGMA transformations:

  • Just as all technology businesses are transforming to remain relevant, transformation is equally essential for NMGAs.
  • Become closer to national challenges and users, thereby understanding the solutions and data required to meet the need for knowledge and solutions.
  • Take advantage of technological opportunities to meet these changing user demands.
  • Invest in partnerships and collaborations.

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