GEOSS - The Need for Interoperability

By John T. Werle


The 287 companies, government agencies and universities that make up the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) are pioneers who are working to create open standards for sharing geospatial data and services across different systems and platforms worldwide.It is this interoperability that will be instrumental in making the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) a reality.

The Earth itself is an integrated system, and all the processes that influence its conditions, whether ecological, biological, climatological or geological, are linked.So it makes sense that interoperability standards should be developed to make it easy for practitioners from any discipline to access the multiple datasets created from space, air, land and ocean-based earth observing systems.

Right now, there are a vast number of data buoys floating in the ocean, thousands of land-based environmental stations, and more than 50 environmental satellites orbiting in space.All this technology is creating millions of data sets - and most of these are incompatible, making integrated analyses impossible.When GEOSS is finally realized, all of these individual data sets will be able to be integrated and analyzed, creating vastly superior understanding and prediction of natural and man-made events and conditions and better responses to them.

Today, 60 governments and 40 international organizations have all signed on in support of GEOSS.This global system will illuminate blind spots and reduce scientific uncertainty by enabling more accurate monitoring of changes in land use, air quality and other environmental parameters.It will link existing and future environmental monitoring technology together into one system.For the first time in human history, we will be able to collect, analyze and understand more data about our planet than ever before"¦and do it all in real-time or near real-time.

Worldwide governments, academia and industry are working towards system interoperability in support of nine "societal benefits." A more complete, integrated and comprehensive picture of the global environment made possible by GEOSS opens up a world of possibilities. Imagine a future in which we could to these things.

  • Reduce loss of life and property from disasters through more timely and specific predications, evacuations and responses.
  • Improve weather forecasting in general. Forecasting with just one more degree Fahrenheit of accuracy will save the least $1 billion in annual electricity costs.
  • Do a better job of protecting and monitoring our oceans.Coastal storms are blamed for 71 percent of U.S.disaster losses every year.
  • Cut travel delays.In the U.S., weather is responsible for about two-thirds of the total travel delays every year. Better observations and forecasts could save almost half of that $4 billion annual cost.
  • Monitor air quality more effectively.We could lessen the effects of pollution through proper transportation, energy use and using real-time information.
  • Connect information from ocean instruments and improve satellite data sharing.This could revolutionize regional climate forecasts, and more accurately predict the length and severity of a drought.

The U.S.component of GEOSS, known as the Integrated Earth Observation System (IEOS), is focused on specific and achievable societal benefits and linking the U.S.efforts to those of our international partners.IEOS has developed standards (including metadata standards) and protocols to address access, interoperability, processing, dissemination and archiving.The current inability to confidently control the flow of information activities has been a barrier to the broader adoption of Web-based geospatial technologies.As such, OGC has an active working group to support Geospatial Digital Rights Management, a capability to describe, identify, trade, protect, monitor and track all forms of rights usages over both tangible and intangible information assets including management of rights-holders relationships to enhance the flow of geographic data and information.We will eventually know where the data are going, where they have been and how they are being used.

So how do we make GEOSS a global reality? Certainly, continued political support will be a factor.But government and industry leaders must also see the market and social benefits of such a system.Sharing data from disparate environmental collection systems could, for example, limit the potential ecological devastation from the next large oil-spill.By sharing data about shipping lane traffic with satellite information about water temperature and ocean currents, the oil spill might be contained more quickly and perhaps cleaned up faster.For example, chemists could quickly determine the right mix of oil-eating organisms to use on the spill and containment crews could more effectively surround the slick and keep it from spreading, with perhaps less interruption to the transportation of other goods on the high seas.

At Boeing, I have a front-row seat in the development and deployment of the next generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES).This new series of three satellites will enable more accurate and timely weather warnings to the public.The GOES system will give meteorologists at NOAA more precise tools to observe and predict thunderstorms, tornadoes, flash floods, dust storms, volcanic eruptions and forest fires.The GOES satellites are expected to be a catalyst in the development of GEOSS.

The OGC, a participating organization in GEOSS, is working toward a day when there will be a unique consensus for an open, highly distributed geographic information system that will include all types of geospatial data and geoprocessing services, supported by industry, governments and the academic community.Interoperability agreements using open standards are part of the GEOSS 10 Year Implementation Plan.What government, academic and industry leaders must realize is that many of the key technical agreements are already in place.Past OGC testbeds have already implemented the GEOSS architecture.Earth Observation data and information are available now, through open standard mechanisms highlighted in the GEOSS 10 Year Implementation Plan and Reference Document.The geospatial community already has a broad based capability to implement the GEOSS architecture with current products and services compliant with OGC specifications that make geo-processing technologies "plug and play." What government, academic and industry leaders must agree on now is to use these existing standards, promote them and exercise them to learn how the standards will need to be improved in OGC's consensus process to meet specific GEOSS needs.

Imagine a world where standard, global communications interfaces ensure that environmental data collected from various sources globally can be assembled, formatted and sent over the Internet by authorities in Brazil and then easily understood and acted upon by people in Japan. Such a concept holds the promise of making people and nations around the globe healthier, safer, more prosperous and better equipped to manage emergencies and basic daily needs.This is where GEOSS can truly leverage our 21st century technology and make diverse environmental systems as interrelated as the planet they observe, monitor and protect.

Published Thursday, November 24th, 2005

Written by John T. Werle

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