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How 999 crews find you – the life and death importance of location data | Location intelligence

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Pinpointing a person’s location can be a matter of life and death. No wonder it has long been a focus for human ingenuity and technology – from smoke signals and SOS distress codes, to emergency services’ dispatch systems and modern-day geolocation apps.

Robust location data is especially crucial when time is of the essence. Paramedics and other emergency services often need to drive at high speed under immense pressure to reach a destination, so it’s essential that they can put complete trust in the accuracy of their location data.

As Great Britain’s national mapping service, Ordnance Survey (OS) might be better known for the paper maps that have kept generations of people exploring the great outdoors on track. But the agency has evolved into a key provider of location data for today’s digitally aided emergency responders.

“Our data underpins dispatch across all emergency service’s command and control systems,” says Iain Goodwin, OS strategic development manager for health and social care. “Finding the exact location of somebody calling in is absolutely critical to enable a quick response. It’s a big part of why we are proud of our work at OS.”

Transformations in location data intelligence allow bodies such as the London Ambulance Service to search through 500m geospatial features in the OS National Geographic Database

As well as helping ambulance crews to find a person in trouble, OS data can also help when assistance is needed before an ambulance arrives – for instance, in the case of the 30,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests that occur each year.

If someone is having a cardiac arrest, all 14 UK ambulance services can direct the person phoning 999 to the nearest defibrillator, thanks to a British Heart Foundation database that uses OS data. Known as The Circuit, the system maps all registered defibrillators – from those on the wall of a public toilet by a beach to those in repurposed telephone boxes – using unique property reference numbers (UPRNs).

These UPRNs are unique numerical identities given to more than 42m addressable locations in the UK, whether a building, a bus stop, a post box, a feature in the landscape – or a defibrillator. The numbers, which can be up to 12 digits in length, are allocated by OS and local authorities.

“OS support in improving The Circuit has been invaluable, both as a trusted and reliable data source and utilising their expertise in mapping,” says Adam Fletcher, head of the British Heart Foundation Cymru. The system is designed to synchronise every 60 seconds with the ambulance services’ live dispatch system and provide the location of the nearest defibrillator in an emergency. “Early CPR and defibrillation can more than double the chances of survival in the ultimate medical emergency,” says Fletcher.

Unique property reference numbers are also helping call handlers at 999 and 111 services to share information about an incident’s location more easily and accurately, reducing the need to match up addresses in life-threatening situations and thereby reducing delays. And UPRNs underpin a framework for streamlining the way emergency responders share information across and between organisations – known as the Multi Agency Incident Transfer (MAIT) standard. Since its introduction in Wales, it has reduced emergency response times and speeded up the sharing of information on incidents to 16 seconds per call, down from more than four minutes. The system is now being rolled out in England.

OS innovations are benefiting ambulance services in other ways too, such as bringing geographic insight to how their vehicles work. OS is working with South Central Ambulance Service, which covers Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire, Sussex and Surrey, to help interpret data collected from its 300-strong ambulance fleet. Goodwin explains: “At a time when ambulance resources are under huge pressure, keeping vehicles on the road for longer could have a big impact. By combining ambulance vehicle telemetry data with geographic characteristics of roads, we can analyse the types of journeys ambulances undertake, providing enhanced business intelligence to inform the rotation of vehicles across different terrains and better predict when vehicles need repair.”

Another way OS came to the aid of South Central Ambulance Service was during the Covid-19 pandemic when it created maps that helped the service gain better visibility of areas with high levels of Covid-19. By taking data on infections and visualising on a map, OS gave the ambulance service a simple way to understand the distribution of infection, helping it to forecast demand for its services and better allocate resources. Known as thematic maps, they can help decision-makers understand what is happening in specific locations when it comes to issues such as climate, health or population density.

Aerial view of housing in Wales
Remote sensing functions within OS have made it easier to map difficult areas

“Visualising the spatial distribution of datasets on a map can improve business intelligence by enabling the simple identification of patterns and trends that aren’t always obvious in tabular form,” says Goodwin.

During the pandemic, OS also helped NHS test and trace to shift from a postcode approach to using unique property reference numbers, which provided much more precise location information. “That was hugely significant because it enabled NHS test and trace to carry out risk analysis around transmission at the building level and benefit from an index of patient UPRNs developed by NHS England. As a result, we saw the first nationwide approach to sharing UPRNs between NHS and local government to support vulnerable households,” says Goodwin.

As well as supporting the UK’s ambulance services, OS can assist the healthcare sector more generally through the use of location intelligence, real-world data and geospatial technology. John Kimmance, managing director of OS national mapping services, says the more organisations that use its data innovations, the bigger the potential. “If you can join big datasets together, it’s useful from a government perspective. For example, if I was in the NHS or social services and if I had a list of addresses of vulnerable people, we could much more easily work out if we were talking about the same person [and provide help].”

Goodwin adds: “This is about linking people to places and sharing place-based insights, to understand how the physical characteristics of places can affect health outcomes and inform the targeting of care.”

To support this thinking, OS is innovating with NHS England to model neighbourhood access to key services and amenities that can affect health outcomes and behaviours. Using a gridded approach to mapping addresses and walkability, the idea is aligned with the 20-minute neighbourhood concept – focusing on what services and amenities are within 20 minutes of where someone lives. “This insight allows government service providers, whether local authorities, health or other government bodies agencies, to think about what enhancements and improvements they could make to improve outcomes, including health outcomes, for people in those areas,” says Kimmance.

See a healthy place | Let OS shine a light on your world | Ordnance Survey


Pinpointing a person’s location can be a matter of life and death. No wonder it has long been a focus for human ingenuity and technology – from smoke signals and SOS distress codes, to emergency services’ dispatch systems and modern-day geolocation apps.

Robust location data is especially crucial when time is of the essence. Paramedics and other emergency services often need to drive at high speed under immense pressure to reach a destination, so it’s essential that they can put complete trust in the accuracy of their location data.

As Great Britain’s national mapping service, Ordnance Survey (OS) might be better known for the paper maps that have kept generations of people exploring the great outdoors on track. But the agency has evolved into a key provider of location data for today’s digitally aided emergency responders.

“Our data underpins dispatch across all emergency service’s command and control systems,” says Iain Goodwin, OS strategic development manager for health and social care. “Finding the exact location of somebody calling in is absolutely critical to enable a quick response. It’s a big part of why we are proud of our work at OS.”

Ordnance Survey location data search
Transformations in location data intelligence allow bodies such as the London Ambulance Service to search through 500m geospatial features in the OS National Geographic Database

As well as helping ambulance crews to find a person in trouble, OS data can also help when assistance is needed before an ambulance arrives – for instance, in the case of the 30,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests that occur each year.

If someone is having a cardiac arrest, all 14 UK ambulance services can direct the person phoning 999 to the nearest defibrillator, thanks to a British Heart Foundation database that uses OS data. Known as The Circuit, the system maps all registered defibrillators – from those on the wall of a public toilet by a beach to those in repurposed telephone boxes – using unique property reference numbers (UPRNs).

These UPRNs are unique numerical identities given to more than 42m addressable locations in the UK, whether a building, a bus stop, a post box, a feature in the landscape – or a defibrillator. The numbers, which can be up to 12 digits in length, are allocated by OS and local authorities.

“OS support in improving The Circuit has been invaluable, both as a trusted and reliable data source and utilising their expertise in mapping,” says Adam Fletcher, head of the British Heart Foundation Cymru. The system is designed to synchronise every 60 seconds with the ambulance services’ live dispatch system and provide the location of the nearest defibrillator in an emergency. “Early CPR and defibrillation can more than double the chances of survival in the ultimate medical emergency,” says Fletcher.

Unique property reference numbers are also helping call handlers at 999 and 111 services to share information about an incident’s location more easily and accurately, reducing the need to match up addresses in life-threatening situations and thereby reducing delays. And UPRNs underpin a framework for streamlining the way emergency responders share information across and between organisations – known as the Multi Agency Incident Transfer (MAIT) standard. Since its introduction in Wales, it has reduced emergency response times and speeded up the sharing of information on incidents to 16 seconds per call, down from more than four minutes. The system is now being rolled out in England.

OS innovations are benefiting ambulance services in other ways too, such as bringing geographic insight to how their vehicles work. OS is working with South Central Ambulance Service, which covers Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire, Sussex and Surrey, to help interpret data collected from its 300-strong ambulance fleet. Goodwin explains: “At a time when ambulance resources are under huge pressure, keeping vehicles on the road for longer could have a big impact. By combining ambulance vehicle telemetry data with geographic characteristics of roads, we can analyse the types of journeys ambulances undertake, providing enhanced business intelligence to inform the rotation of vehicles across different terrains and better predict when vehicles need repair.”

Another way OS came to the aid of South Central Ambulance Service was during the Covid-19 pandemic when it created maps that helped the service gain better visibility of areas with high levels of Covid-19. By taking data on infections and visualising on a map, OS gave the ambulance service a simple way to understand the distribution of infection, helping it to forecast demand for its services and better allocate resources. Known as thematic maps, they can help decision-makers understand what is happening in specific locations when it comes to issues such as climate, health or population density.

Aerial view of housing in Wales
Remote sensing functions within OS have made it easier to map difficult areas

“Visualising the spatial distribution of datasets on a map can improve business intelligence by enabling the simple identification of patterns and trends that aren’t always obvious in tabular form,” says Goodwin.

During the pandemic, OS also helped NHS test and trace to shift from a postcode approach to using unique property reference numbers, which provided much more precise location information. “That was hugely significant because it enabled NHS test and trace to carry out risk analysis around transmission at the building level and benefit from an index of patient UPRNs developed by NHS England. As a result, we saw the first nationwide approach to sharing UPRNs between NHS and local government to support vulnerable households,” says Goodwin.

As well as supporting the UK’s ambulance services, OS can assist the healthcare sector more generally through the use of location intelligence, real-world data and geospatial technology. John Kimmance, managing director of OS national mapping services, says the more organisations that use its data innovations, the bigger the potential. “If you can join big datasets together, it’s useful from a government perspective. For example, if I was in the NHS or social services and if I had a list of addresses of vulnerable people, we could much more easily work out if we were talking about the same person [and provide help].”

Goodwin adds: “This is about linking people to places and sharing place-based insights, to understand how the physical characteristics of places can affect health outcomes and inform the targeting of care.”

To support this thinking, OS is innovating with NHS England to model neighbourhood access to key services and amenities that can affect health outcomes and behaviours. Using a gridded approach to mapping addresses and walkability, the idea is aligned with the 20-minute neighbourhood concept – focusing on what services and amenities are within 20 minutes of where someone lives. “This insight allows government service providers, whether local authorities, health or other government bodies agencies, to think about what enhancements and improvements they could make to improve outcomes, including health outcomes, for people in those areas,” says Kimmance.

See a healthy place | Let OS shine a light on your world | Ordnance Survey

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