Spatial Data Infrastructures - Challenges and Opportunities
This is the second in a series of articles which explores spatial data infrastructures (SDIs).
In the first article (Directions Magazine,
February 22, 2010), I discussed how more than 70 years ago aviator
Beryl Markham viewed maps as tools for communicating and for connecting
a person to others. Likewise today, I believe that spatial data
infrastructures (SDIs) can be tools for communication and for building
stability in an uncertain world.
In order to be relevant and widely used, SDIs must be easy to operate,
be adaptable to the changing needs of society and organizations, and be
flexible to adjust to advances in technology. These SDI capabilities
are part of the four critical principles that the National Research
Council's Mapping Science Committee recommended in 1993 for the U.S.
When the vision and concepts of SDIs began to take hold in the early
1990s, many of the tools necessary to fulfill the SDI vision were not
yet available in the information technology and geospatial marketplace.
Over the 20 or so years that SDIs have been in development, much has
changed in terms of technology and in the level of widespread
understanding about the usefulness of geospatial information. In some
places, the SDIs have evolved in response to technological and societal
changes, while in others, SDIs have been resistant to change for
economic, policy and control reasons. However, in most cases SDIs still
remain difficult for the user to navigate or do not meet the needs of a
broad range of users.
Key challenges for SDIs include: how to evolve to incorporate new
technologies; how to deal with the question of differing quality of
data such as authorative data and data generated by crowdsourcing,
volunteer networks etc.; how to expand SDI concepts into the practices
of business and smaller units of government; and how to put in place
the policy, financing and governance mechanisms that will promote and
sustain SDIs over time.
SDIs are fundamentally a framework of standards, practices and
relationships that incorporate many types of users and data to enable
cooperation in sharing and using geospatial information. They should be
dynamic rather than static so that over time, through a combined
community effort, new technologies and practices can be added and
barriers to change and progress can be removed or reduced.
Many SDIs now include Web services as a key component of their
architecture. Common in SDIs are Web Mapping Services, Web Feature
Services and other Web services supported by standards for
interoperability developed by standards consortia and geospatial
The rapid growth of new tools such as satellite imagery viewers,
participatory mapping and mobile applications have begun to provide
citizen access to geospatial tools as well, making some of the SDI
core/framework data themes readily available for use by government,
business and citizens. We have made progress but there is still a long
way to go.
If we look at the availability and use of geospatial information in
response to the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, we can
get an idea of both the progress and the opportunity to do more.
Widespread destruction created a tremendous need for assistance in
Haiti and many countries and organizations responded to appeals for
aid. The response to the need for geospatial/mapping data was
outstanding. In a short period of time, companies, individuals,
universities, non-governmental organizations and governments provided
geospatial data and maps for use by first responders and relief
organizations. New satellite imagery was collected and made available
shortly after the earthquake struck, crowdsourcing tools were deployed
to help gather and visualize information about what was happening on
the ground, and data and maps were supplied by governments, businesses
and not-for-profit organizations. This wealth of information was of
great help to rescue workers, health providers and others. It also
should be valuable for longer term recovery and rebuilding operations
that will be needed to restore and improve the day-to-day lives of
However, is this the best practice for addressing the availability,
sharing and use of geospatial information and services? Data that were
already collected had to be identified and made available after the
earthquake. Different interfaces and Web protocols often made it
difficult for users to quickly bring data together. A variety of
portals were established to host data, but they did not have a network
of catalogue services to join. Metadata were unavailable for some data,
and agreements (standards) for metadata for volunteer geographic
information are not in place yet. And finally, the common guidelines
for integration of these types of crisis efforts into an SDI are
generally recreated each time an event occurs. If a mature network of
SDIs was in place, much of the base geospatial information and services
needed would have been readily accessible to be augmented by the new
information collected to show the current situation, damage and ongoing
The geospatial community's spirit of cooperation and willingness to
respond to humanitarian needs overcame these problems by working and
partnering with others, a key ingredient to successful SDI
implementation. Barriers still exist, but many solutions such as
metadata tools, data access mechanisms, standards for interoperability
and suggested best practices for implementing geospatial technologies
already exist or are in progress and are being used by many communities
and organizations to build SDIs. With the increasing level of
interoperability and with the development of common geospatial
architectures, individual organizations can now build their own
internal spatial data infrastructures to manage geospatial information
as a critical enterprise asset. By using SDI best practices and
reaching increasing levels of maturity, these enterprise spatial
information systems will be able to evolve to become part of the
network of community, regional, national or even global SDIs.
Big challenges still remain to integrate architectures, develop
interoperable data models and create a climate that enables
collaboration, innovation and sharing of geospatial data and services.
New innovative and potentially disruptive technologies will continue to
emerge and we will need to incorporate many of them into existing SDIs.
SDIs are complex and dynamic and as such require constant interaction
among the involved parties in order for them to be effective. We seem
to be able to respond when an emergency arises; can we now pull
together to put in place more adaptable, user friendly SDIs to be a
widely used resource of geospatial information and services?
At the 1999 National GeoData Forum, the participants agreed that
nothing was gained by pessimism and that we needed to dream big dreams
and push forward. This is even truer today, as we are in an age where
the economic, ecological and social issues often seem insurmountable.
But we have also seen through the example of the Haiti earthquake that
people working together toward a common purpose can make a difference.
The time is still right to realize the potential of geographic
information and spatial data infrastructures if we can overcome our
institutional and personal barriers and create collaborative
relationships and ongoing communications among SDI stakeholders.