Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDIs) - Why Should We Care About Them?

By John Moeller

"A map in the hands of a pilot is a testimony of a man’s faith in other men; it is a symbol of confidence and trust." - Beryl Markham

We all recognize the great strides made in recent years in understanding the value of geospatial information for use in creating operational pictures, analyses and in making decisions in virtually all facets of business and personal life. So, what are SDIs and why are they important to us?

This is the first in a series of articles exploring Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDIs) to generate interest in their value and use in everyday activities of organizations, individuals and communities. Two more articles in this series will be published in May and September.

Recently, I was reading West with the Night, by aviator Beryl Markham, first published in 1942, about her life as a young woman in Africa, and becoming the first person to fly solo from east to west across the Atlantic Ocean. In Chapter XX, Ms. Markham writes:
A map in the hands of a pilot is a testimony of a man’s faith in other men; it is a symbol of confidence and trust. ... A map says to you "Read me, follow me closely, doubt me not." It says "I am the earth in the palm of your hand. Without me you are alone and lost." Were all of the maps in the world destroyed and vanished under the direction of some malevolent hand, each man would be blind again, each city be made a stranger to the next, and each landmark become a meaningless sign post pointing to nothing. ... Here is your map. Unfold it, follow it, then throw it away, if you will. It is only paper. It is only paper and ink, but if you think a little, if you pause a moment, you will see that these two things have seldom joined to make a document so modest and yet so full with histories of hope or sagas of conquest.
Very eloquent words about the nature of maps and geospatial data, which also capture the very essence of the vision of SDIs. Almost seventy years later, we can apply these same thoughts to today’s mapping and geospatial information and the nature of SDIs.

SDIs have evolved from data sharing and program coordination efforts coupled with the emergence of information society concepts and technological revolutions in Internet communications, distributed networks, wireless communications and new geospatial tools. Policy and management approaches have shifted from single disciplines and stand-alone technologies to multi-disciplinary and interoperable orientations that promote data sharing and collaboration.

The history of spatial data (mapping) coordination in the United States extends from the early days of the nation. The current framework of federal guidance for spatial data has evolved from an Executive Order by President Roosevelt in 1906. Over the years, a number of new and revised documents have been issued and have consistently maintained the themes of avoiding duplication of effort, standardized maps, information readily available regardless of its source, and engagement of the non-government sector.

The U.S. National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) was established in April 1994 by Executive Order 12906. This order defined the NSDI as "the technology, policies, criteria, standards and people necessary to aquire, process, store, distribute and improve utilization of geospatial data." It also stated that the NSDI should be developed in cooperation with state, local and tribal governments, the private sector, academia and others.

In summary, the intent of the NSDI is to provide a structure for standards, practices and relationships among data producers and users to facilitate data sharing and use. It is a set of actions and new ways of accessing, sharing and using geographic data to suport public and private sector applications of data and for analysis and decision making. The NSDI established by EO12906 built upon already existing efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as recommendations by the National Research Council’s Mapping Science Committee (MSC).

Key among the recommendations of the MSC are four critical principles that the committee said should guide the development of the NSDI:
  • Availability - the NSDI is national and should not serve the interest of only one level of government or sector
  • Ease of Use - the NSDI should be as easy as turning on a light switch and its complexities should be transparent to the user
  • Flexibility - the NSDI should not be dependant upon the technology, data or organizational structures of today. It must incorporate many types of users and data.
  • Foundation for other activities - the NSDI should not be an end in itself but a means of realizing the value of spatial data and of fostering new applications, services and industries
So how does the aviator view of spatial data expressed by Beryl Markham almost 70 years ago tie into the evolving concept and implementation of SDIs today and tomorrow?
  • Faith and trust in others - SDIs implicitly ask for faith, trust and confidence in others. Metadata, which provide a description of data, services and resources, along with data sharing agreements, are examples of ways of expressing trust in mature SDIs.
  • he earth in the palm of your hand - This is true even more so today than in the early 1900s through the capabilities of SDIs to provide users with the ability to see both local and global perspectives at the same time. Effective open SDIs can truly give us the earth in the palm of our hands.
  • Without it, you are alone and lost - Spatial data in many respects are new languages of cyberspace, and SDIs are the "dial-tone" of the geospatial Web. While Markham would have been lost as an aviator without her maps, we likewise would be unable to perform many, if not most, of our personal tasks and our organization’s functions without the ability to communicate geographically.
  • Each would be blind again, each city be made a stranger to the next, and each landmark become a meaningless sign post pointing to nothing - Geographic knowledge helps bind us together, it underlies local, regional and national cultures. Granted, the power of place can create forces that contribute to territorial autonomy and behaviors that divide us as people. However, the establishment of common ground based on expanded knowledge of human and natural geography can reach across political, administrative and other borders to join individuals, cities and even nations toward opportunities for greater well-being and stability. Maps and SDIs are tools that can help point toward better futures.
  • Unfold it, follow it, then throw it away, if you will - Previously, maps could be tossed when you were done with them. Today a user can do the same with electronic geospatial data, but with added features. Those data remain available for the next use and for assembly by someone else to address a completely new topic.
While maps may have been only paper and ink, they brought new richness, understanding and hope. Likewise, if we look beneath the technological and bureaucratic talk concerning implementations of SDIs and geospatial data sharing, a vision will unfold of new ways we can use geospatial information and technology in collaboration, rather than isolation, and to see local, as well as world conditions, as an organic whole rather than as disconnected pieces.

Geospatial information is now an integral part of information networks. SDIs should be viewed and implemented as dynamic, growing and evolving infrastructures that are part of the maturation of an organization and its ability to integrate data, technology, systems and business process across the enterprise. Successful implementation and use requires balancing individual needs with needs of the enterprise. An SDI should be recognized as a critical enterprise asset, which can be implemented at many different scales, from organizational to multi-organizational and from local to national and even to the global level.

The use of open, standards-based, service-oriented architectures helps tie together the growing number of creative applications to meet the needs of business and personal activities. As we mature in our use of SDIs, organizations will become better able to implement enterprise architectures, best practices and spatial information infrastructures that support the needs of society and business.

Published Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Written by John Moeller

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