Ordnance Survey

Using geospatial data to unlock innovation in the property sector

Louise Weale from Ordnance Survey argues that geospatial data is key to unlocking business innovation in the property sector

As technology and data capabilities advance, there is an increasing focus on leveraging data that will enable innovation and deliver new value for customers. Geospatial data is an emerging area of opportunity in the property sector, and it is fast being utilised by agile “proptechs”, developers and data scientists.

Buildings, like everything, occupy space. For residential and commercial enterprises, the contextual data attached to properties is fertile ground for innovation.

Whether helping property developers better understand the spatial contexts of sites or providing homebuyers with easier access to the detail they need, geospatial data is being used more than ever to create solutions that deliver value across the sector.

Much of the innovation with geospatial data in the property sector is being driven by more agile proptechs and data specialists. As organisations across the sector seek to ramp up innovation, those with the skills to create value from this data will be in high demand.

Let’s consider the main challenges to innovation, as well as the areas of opportunity for those with more advanced digital skills within the property sector at large.

The innovation challenge

Incumbent commercial and residential property organisations are faced with the significant challenge of innovating with their current technology stacks. It’s a problem for businesses that have existed for a long time, as those that were first to adopt technology are now entrenched in legacy systems, many of which are mission critical.

The data that exists in these systems is the lifeblood of many an organisation’s core proposition. But as the technology landscape has evolved – particularly with the move towards the cloud, the growth of open source data, data sharing standards, and application programming interfaces (APIs) – many of these organisations are faced with the challenge of unlocking the innovative potential of their data, which is often in a proprietary format, particularly when it comes to integration with other data sets.

For many, the benefits of migrating to a more agile technology infrastructure are vastly outweighed by the upfront costs of ripping and replacing legacy systems. It’s here that developers, proptechs and third-party data specialists are best placed to deliver immediate value and unlock the potential of the data incumbents hold, particularly given the general lack of digital skills across the industry.

Understanding this problem, many larger property organisations have been able to partially leapfrog their legacy challenges by creating specialist divisions within their organisations, or by acquiring more data-savvy startups. To harness the power of geospatial data, for example, many have dedicated geomatics divisions filled with technical talent, such as developers and data scientists.

Opportunities also abound for proptechs able to provide useful offerings to the small- and medium-sized businesses that make up the vast majority of firms within the property sector. These firms simply do not have the in situ digital skills nor the financial capability to onboard or retrain staff to accelerate their innovation strategies and deliver the solutions that will provide greater value for customers.

The skills problem facing the industry is plainly laid out in a 2020 survey conducted by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which revealed that 52% of respondents believed they lacked the necessary skills to fully embrace proptech.

Some 98% saw it as an opportunity rather than a threat, but almost half (48%) of respondents felt they did not have a good understanding of proptech, and just 39% said their organisation had invested heavily in proptech and related training.

The results show the chasm between opportunity and the skills needed to bridge the innovation gap in the property sector. Geospatial data, for example, touches every part of a property and the context of its location, though there is still a relative lack of solutions across the industry that fully take advantage of this data.

The need for standards and opportunities for developers

Historically, one of the key hurdles to innovation is the lack of common data standards. Standardisation of file formats, programming languages, tools and APIs enables greater data integration capabilities and accelerates innovation.

The Public Sector Geospatial Agreement (PSGA), sponsored by the Geospatial Commission, is playing a key role in providing access to standardised datasets at a national level by the commercial and public sectors.

Now many industry bodies within the property sector recognise the value of data standards. In January 2021, more than 50 organisations, including the UK Proptech Association, and many of the UK’s leading property giants, wrote a joint letter to the government, urging widespread adoption of Unique Property Reference Numbers (UPRNs) across the housing market.

This reference number acts as a data anchor, or standard, against which building and contextual metadata can be attached. Among their many benefits, using UPRNs to combine disparate datasets will improve building safety, help enforcement, increase accountability for landlords, expedite the home-buying process, and empower consumers.

The potential of UPRNs across the public and private sectors is nothing short of revolutionary, but for widespread adoption to occur, it’s essential that organisations understand their potential and are incentivised to adopt them at the same pace.

Many sectors within the property industry are seeking to encourage the adoption of UPRNs. The Home Buying and Selling Group, for example, is making strides to create a “logbook” for every residential property in the UK, which will be linked to a UPRN. These logbooks will contain all the information about a residential property that has been provided by trusted data sources.

This can then be presented at the beginning of the property buying journey, greatly improving the customer experience, as well as providing valuable data for mortgage lenders and insurers.

Building materials can also be linked to the UPRN, as well as metadata that details the environmental benefits or drawbacks. Immediately, the far-reaching advantages a standard can enable in just one market segment are clear. Once again, driving the innovation in each case are those with the digital skills and vision to realise new use cases.

Once data is easily shareable, the potential for innovation is practically limitless. A good example of how simple it can be is demonstrated by the popularity of the OS Maps API. Using the API, a citizen developer or proptech can take the base map and use it as is, providing a simple mapping feature within an application, or overlay proprietary and third-party data as they please, creating a more advanced mapping visualisation.

The OS Features API also provides the features alongside the attribution including full attribution of the OS MasterMap Topography layer. Developers and proptech can fetch the results of a spatial query specific to the features in and around specific properties, available to the developer immediately.  

Whether such capabilities are unlocked in-house or through collaboration, it’s clear that the will to deliver new solutions to customers is growing among organisations of all sizes. Data standards and those in possession of the digital skills to harness them will be key partners in enabling delivery.

OS works with a range of organisations ranging from global giants to startups, which use geospatial data to create and enhance solutions across several market sectors. Third-party data can be integrated with OS data through the partner network or through APIs via the OS Data Hub.   

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