Courtesy of the Geospatial Commission
Nigel Clifford is the Society’s next President. We caught up with him before he takes office on Monday 7 June to find out more about him and his life in geography.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born on the south coast between the South Downs and the sea, into a family of keen walkers. When I was a child, the whole family was often up on the Downs or travelling further afield to the Lake District or Cornwall.
That enjoyment of walking, scrambling, and exploring has continued with my own family today. We live on the Berkshire/Wiltshire border in fantastic countryside, and we love being out and about on two legs, two wheels or on the waterways. As well as holidays around the UK, we have been lucky enough to travel to amazing places like the Lofoten Islands – one of many trips to Scandinavia – China, India, Africa, Australia, Japan, and both South and North America. I lived in Scotland for a good number of years and married someone from north of Hadrian’s Wall, so there has been lots of Scottish and Northumbrian exploration too.
I was inspired by a couple of really brilliant geography teachers in secondary school. The older had fought in the Second World War and was both a serious and a very funny man, able to see the lighter side of life – my fond field trip memories to the Lake District are filled with the usual hard work, and getting a bit cold, wet and muddy, and then the joy of warming up in the steamy hut in the evenings afterwards. He made that experience very special. Our younger teacher, for the first time in my experience, provided his own notes in advance to us, so we could really listen in class. It was a different style of teaching, but one I found worked really well and it’s a memory that’s come back strongly as I’ve heard more about the innovations shaping the way geography is learned today.
My connection with Downing College, Cambridge came from my older geography teacher who had studied geography there when he was an undergraduate, and he encouraged me to apply. I was accepted and spent three happy years at the college. After Downing, I chose a career in business, studied for an MBA at Strathclyde and and stepped from there into the NHS, specifically as Chief Executive of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary University NHS Trust, and then went back into business in the late 1990s. In 2015, I was asked if I’d like to bid to be CEO of Ordnance Survey, and once I’d met the team and taken a look around their fantastic campus, I was eager to take the plunge! It was a fabulous three years, spending time leading dedicated, expert, and professional people with a strong sense of the essential mission they fulfill.
I joined the Geospatial Commission in 2018 after being involved with its early design.
Why are you interested in geography? Why is the subject important?
Last weekend I stood on top of a local hill, having puffed up it on my bike, and was thinking about the interconnectedness of things. I could see a canal, a railway line, larger points of population away in the distance and several villages nestled in the hollows beneath the hillside. Geography is intriguing and important because it is literally omnipresent. Wherever you look, on a hillside, a high street or in a petabyte of data, there is a story to be told or an insight or interpretation to be gained through geography and geospatial information. This is relevant to the physical, human (or increasingly, machine) worlds, and geography brings a unique perspective to help us make sense of and help shape what is going on in the world around us.
What are your top three most precious geographical objects you own and why?
That is a good question!
My first object is a bit of a cheat, because it’s actually my wife and some of our best friends. We all studied geography and met in the School of Geography at Cambridge. Serendipity was at work as, by pure coincidence, my best friend who had left our school for a different sixth form, walked into the same waiting room for our entrance interviews! Fortunately, we were both accepted, and he ended up marrying the Girton Geographer who had the college room next to my wife’s. Yes, they married, and we married - a very ‘Alan Ayckbourn’ set of relationships, but I can definitely say that geography brought us together all those years ago and we’ve remained fantastic friends ever since. We still travel together too.
The next ‘object’ is a collection of books and diaries that we’ve kept of various trips as a couple and then as a family over 30 years of travelling. We always take a notebook with us and record ‘what we did’ that day. They are great reminders of lovely long sunny days on the fells with friends following a Wainwright route, or on lakes in Finland. They transport you back to a moment in time before digital photography and was a great way to capture these memories. They’re something I look forward to coming back to more and more as I get older.
The final object is a reminder of the geospatial community at large. One lesson I learned in running Ordnance Survey is that there is a large and supportive geospatial community across the world. They’re a very generous, fun and active bunch and it’s a great network to be plugged into. To remind me of that spirit I have a replica of a 19th century theodolite which I was given by the Surveyor General of India at a conference. It represents to me this strong and supportive community where, if you’ve got an issue, you know you can tap into this group and they’ll give it deep thought as they share the same desire to improve geospatial information across the globe.
Given what we’ve learned since the start of the pandemic, can you comment on why geospatial data is so vital, plus your role at the Geospatial Commission?
I have a friend who is leader of a local authority, and we were recently talking about this question. She saw that geospatial data, when combined with other data, have been central to their decision making, from the siting of vaccination centres or test and trace programmes to thinking about transport corridors or outbreak management. It’s been a significant support to making sense of what’s going on at a local level, and on a more macro level, geo-assets like the OS’ ‘Mapping for Emergencies’ service has been used by numerous organisations such as emergency services, local authorities, NHS bodies, the Health and Safety Executive, transport and utility companies.
The Geospatial Commission is an expert committee that sets the UK’s geospatial strategy and promotes the best use of geospatial data. It has four core missions related to data quality and availability, innovation and skills and is building towards an integrated geospatial framework for the UK by 2025.
It was formed partly in response to questions that we were asking at Ordnance Survey which included ‘how do we get a view of what national geospatial policy is?’ and ‘how do we make the most of our separate national geospatial assets?’.
Before 2018, answers were limited as there was no single body coordinating policy. Happily, with the support of John Manzoni (Chief Executive of the Civil Service and Permanent Secretary), the Commission was created, linking the needs of the public sector, and broader stakeholders, with the so-called ‘Geo Six’: The British Geological Survey, The Coal Authority, HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, UK Hydrographic Office and the Valuation Office Agency. We’ve also recently welcomed the Government Geography Profession to live within the organisation too.
It’s been a really good few years establishing a voice for geography and the relevance of geospatial data in the heart of government as well as introducing new geo-data to the country. For example, we’ve recently run two successful pilot ‘Underground Asset Registers’, supported by the utility and telecoms companies, to allow a better understanding of the hidden veins and arteries of infrastructure that help our society to function.
Why did you volunteer for the job of the Society’s President?
It’s hard to put into words, but some of it is following my heart, recognising the significance of the institution and what it’s achieved over (almost) 200 years, driving the expansion of geographic science and understanding. But it’s also following my head; I can clearly see the difference the Society's can and must make for today’s students, academicians, explorers and practitioners. There’s also an element of karma about it too – I’ve enjoyed geography so much over the years, I want to support and contribute to an area that has been such a huge part of my life.
What do you hope to achieve during your three-year tenure?
I want to play my part in amplifying the value and relevance of geography across all walks of life. I hope to bring together more and more diverse groups and approaches to showcase the benefits of ‘geographical thinking’ – and to encourage a gravitation towards our subject from all areas of society.
A large part of my work will be supporting Joe Smith, the Director, and the great work being done across all of the Society’s activities, and then finally, I’ll be doing whatever I can to support the Society as part of its COVID-19 financial recovery and the practicalities surrounding this.
I also very much hope to learn a lot, meet as many of our membership as possible and enjoy it!
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