During the great cholera epidemics in 1848 and 1854, Dr John Snow proved that an outbreak in Soho came from water rather than the air. By plotting the address of each death, against the position of the local water pumps. He found that most of the deaths happened around the pump in Broad Street. As a result, the government chained up the offending pump, and built proper drainage and sewerage systems. They also changed the name of the street of shame to Broadwick Street, the home of PC Week. Moley should therefore beware before he burrows too deep in search of the filth he purveys. The Association of Geographic Information (AGI) claims this as the first triumph of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). These systems are based on a very simple process, overlaying one set of "location-based" data - addresses of people who died from cholera - with the distribution of the water pumps. And they put it all on a map, and the conclusion jumps out at you, and changes the whole shape and history of London. The AGI goes further. It claims that 80% of all useful information has a "where" element in it, through the grid lines on the Ordnance Survey's maps or a post code. Coloured maps show up the patches of good and bad salesmen or duff products on a sales analysis better than any bar-chart. Data from loyalty cards will show on a map where to build the next Tesco. Maps can show whether power lines really do cause cancer. The upshot of it all is that, to demonstrate the really interesting correlations, a map is worth a thousand spreadsheets, bar charts, pie charts or graphs. When they showed me a map comparing the colossally high numbers of unmarried mothers in South Wales with any other part of the UK, I had to be physically restrained from boarding a train to Swansea, to look for a reason. At my age! So, I believe that the integrated office suites of the future should have a GIS module as standard. As well as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, they will have Soho, to commemorate the first ever GIS. And it will, of course, be cheap enough to be used by Small Office Home Office people like me. The UK is the best place to start such a GIS/Soho revolution, because no other country has such a digitised mapping environment as that provided by the Ordnance Survey. But there is a snag to my wonderful dream, whose innovative sweep could bring the UK back into contention of world leader of really useful applications. The snag is, according to the AGI itself, that a modern day Dr John Snow would not be able to prise out of the hands of the government departments the data which led to his great discovery. The registrar of births and deaths would be most unhappy about releasing his data to the NHS. And of course, all these departments hold their maps and present their data in incompatible formats. And post codes don't tally with local government boundaries, which don't tie up with NHS regions, which don't tie up with Parliamentary constituencies. And the Ordnance Survey charges an arm and a leg for its digitised maps, so that even government departments cannot afford to use them, let alone the private sector. Yes, there is an inter-departmental committee, called IGGI, to try to sort this out, but it is exceedingly slow. I am not likely to get my cheap and cheerful Soho GIS in my lifetime.
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