In the United States in 1994, President Clinton signed an Executive Order calling for the establishment of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure. At the state level, agencies share GIS information and many host formal clearinghouses designed to coordinate, promote and facilitate the effective sharing of geographic information.
While the U.S. strategy relies on volunteer activities and partnerships , the European Union has taken a giant leap forward with the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe (INSPIRE) directive. European Union (EU) legislation that established the INSPIRE directive passed the European Parliament in May 2007 and will be implemented in stages, with full implementation in 2019. Currently, there is no EU budget dedicated specifically to INSPIRE. However various funding programs already exist at European and national levels that cover INSPIRE topics.
To ensure that the spatial data infrastructures are compatible and usable across Europe, the directive requires that common rules are adopted. These rules cover metadata, data specifications, network services, data and service sharing, monitoring and reporting.
INSPIRE raises the bar
Across Europe, there are instances when timely access to geographic data from another country can become a life-or-death matter. Flooding in the Rhine River, for example, may affect Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. In other cases, policy decisions regarding pollution, the environment or security may depend on location-based information already collected in a neighboring jurisdiction.
The principles behind INSPIRE are simple: The geographic data necessary for good governance should be collected only once, readily accessible and in formats that are usable by a variety of users, applications and business processes.
Under this directive, public authorities must:
- Publish metadata about their geographic information
- Make data available according to standard interoperable specifications
- Offer services for metadata discovery, viewing, downloads and data transformation
- Harmonize the conditions under which EU members supply data and services
Initial hesitation gives way to cost-saving realization
When I spoke with GIS users across Europe, it was apparent that few were looking forward to a mandate - especially in today's economic environment. Some changes will be required, and that involves an investment of time and resources, neither of which are in great supply.
That said, EU member nations recognize the value that can be expected once this initiative commences. The efficiencies, cost-savings and elimination of duplicative efforts will have a bottom-line impact in a relatively short time. More importantly, the ready access to timely, consistent geographic data will expedite and enhance decision making for years to come.
A few years ago, the Centre of Land Policy and Valuations of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya conducted an in-depth study to evaluate the costs, savings and socio-economic impact of establishing and operating a spatial data infrastructure (SDI) across 20 local authorities. After analyzing the internal efficiencies (time saved in internal queries by technical staff, time saved in attending queries by the public, time saved in internal processes) and overall effectiveness (time saved by the public and by companies in dealing with public administration), the study concluded that the total investment to set up the SDI and develop it over a four-year period was recovered in just over six months.
Standards and technology now in-line with market needs
While under discussion for decades, efforts to share GIS data across agencies and countries have recently shifted into high gear for two reasons. One is the agreement on standards. Previously, government agencies would develop applications to support their specific needs only; nomenclature, data points, specifications and coordinate systems varied greatly. When two federal agencies collaborated across countries, some would joke about "two sides of a bridge that missed by 15 meters." Today, standards established through organizations such as the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and the International Standards Organization (ISO) have created environments where shared data can be consistently understood.
A second trend fueling shared data is the accessibility of leading-edge technologies. Much of the field work and data collection takes place through local authorities and public works agencies - small organizations that may have no need for robust, mainframe systems or significant data hosting. The recent migration of location intelligence solutions to SaaS, on-demand and cloud applications, however, allows these groups to participate without incurring the expense of managing in-house systems.
Users look beyond mandates and find long-term value
While the INSPIRE directive serves as the impetus to create the metadata catalogues and online access necessary for shared GIS data, some additional initiatives are going beyond current requirements. These forward-looking organizations are using this event as an opportunity to design workflows that will support decision making well into the future. Considerations include:
Early coding - Capturing metadata at the point of content creation - by individuals who understand the value of the information - helps ensure that catalog tags accurately reflect the data and how they can be used.
Customization - INSPIRE dictates a base-level that all groups must adhere to, but that should not be seen as a limitation. Groups should also look at internal processes and needs to determine if additional fields, data elements or metadata elements can facilitate workflows.Vendors and technology providers can simplify execution
Linkage - Decisions whether catalog metadata should interface with other functions, such as display maps or related data, will be easier to implement if known up front.
Data rights - While it is necessary to catalog the presence of GIS data, organizations may or may not be willing to provide those data to just anyone (or at no cost). Such policies should be thought through and developed in advance.
Usability - Above all else, forward-thinking organizations understand that the goal is not to comply with a mandate - but to make GIS data more searchable, more accessible and more usable.
As the roll-out of INSPIRE covers a 10-year period, government agencies and organizations should look for solutions that will stand the test of time. Suppliers with a proven track record of innovation and commitment to the industry may be better situated to provide the support needed both today and tomorrow.
In terms of near-term needs, GIS solutions should provide the functionality to add metadata catalogues automatically - at the point of data creation - while making it easy to access and use shared data. Intuitive user interfaces and the ability to integrate mapping, predictive analytics and location-based data into existing systems and workflows are critical as the number of individuals looking to access these data will likely expand.
Previously, geographic information was stored by different agencies across multiple countries with few standards. Today, a new age of GIS data sharing is upon us - and the growing availability of spatial data will make it easier for organizations in the public sector to make much-needed connections faster and more efficiently.