The National Land and Water Information Service - Canada’s New Agri-Environmental Web Portal

By Julie Leese

Canadians have one-stop access to information and decision support for agriculture and the environment through a new Web portal developed by the Government of Canada. Online since 2006, the National Land and Water Information Service (NLWIS) provides interactive maps, planning tools, expertise and geospatial data, highlighting land use, soil, water, climate and biodiversity across the country.

The new Web portal developed by the National Land and Water Information Service. (Click for larger image)

With federal funding of CDN$100.1 million, NLWIS is built on a foundation of partnership and collaboration between Canada's federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments; agricultural producers and industries; non-government organizations and academic institutions. The federal department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) is spearheading the effort.

NLWIS is an investment in agri-environmental sustainability that will benefit more than just the agricultural sector. When fully operational in 2009, NLWIS will help transform the way land-use decisions are made all over Canada.

Putting information at the fingertips of Canadians
The NLWIS portal pulls together soil, water and other agri-environmental data from dispersed sources using interoperable GIS technology. It provides expert help to apply and interpret the information. Currently, 22 geospatial applications are available over the Internet in Canada's two official languages. These applications were developed by AAFC, but many other organizations contributed their expertise and geospatial data.

NLWIS' wide range of interactive maps provides an effective way to visualize and explore the data created and/or maintained by AAFC and its collaborators. Some maps have broad public appeal, such as the Plant Hardiness Zones of Canada (joint with Natural Resources Canada) which are very popular with Canadian gardeners. Others are important frameworks, such as the Soil Landscapes of Canada which provide geospatial data to support research and modeling by a variety of users, from high school students to journalists to scientists. A number of tools are specifically tailored to land managers. For example, the "fence calculator" can be used to map out and project the cost of fencing a farmer's field.

The expanding suite of Web-based products and services will serve a cross-section of Canadians involved in land management and land-use planning on a local, regional or national scale. They include landowners and planners, community groups, universities and colleges, the agriculture industry and all levels of government.

Contributing to overall health of the environment
The federal, provincial and territorial governments are working together to make Canada a world leader in food safety, innovation and environmentally responsible agriculture. Environmental components of this national agriculture policy include farm planning, farm stewardship and beneficial management practices, monitoring and reporting, cover crop protection, water supply expansion, water quality surveillance and emergency preparedness - in particular, risk management and traceability. The framework and infrastructure NLWIS is building will enhance the capacity to effectively monitor, forecast and respond to the agricultural sector. Its online applications support AAFC policy and programs that contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment for all Canadians.

Here is an example (Steps 1-5) of how clients could use the NLWIS geospatial Web services and applications to render the information they need and create their own interpretations; in this case, to determine the difference in corn acreage between 1996 and 2001 and then map it. (Click each for larger image)

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NLWIS underpins the geographic information needs of AAFC by providing geospatial data, decision-support tools, and improvements in national data collection, analysis and reporting. It allows for better management of the geographic information the department creates, uses and shares. This Internet-based service is contributing in a real way to the federal government's vision of changing how it interacts with citizens through the use of technology.

The new Web portal developed by the National Land and Water Information Service.

Building for success
NLWIS is being implemented in four overlapping phases as a four-year major Crown project, which started in 2005. Leading the project for AAFC is Assistant Deputy Minister Dr. Susan Till. The launch of the Web portal last year marked the successful completion of Phase 1. This work consolidated existing Web-based applications within AAFC and provided a single point of access for the applications and data. Other efforts were directed to extending the use of national standards, adding a Help Desk and introducing the Land Resource Viewer. This new mapping application combines general information on agricultural practices, watersheds and dominant soils in Canada contributed by federal departments, such as AAFC, Environment Canada and Statistics Canada. Enhancements in subsequent versions will add more data.

Phase 2 focuses on developing the information technology platform for NLWIS. This platform will provide a new departmental enterprise system, increasing the service's GIS capacity. It is scheduled to launch by the end of 2007. Specifically, the NLWIS enterprise system will have:
  • an environment to host applications
  • a data warehouse to store and maintain AAFC data
  • processes and supporting tools to load, store, manage, access and analyze geospatial data
  • access to geospatial data from collaborating organizations
In Phase 3, data in the data warehouse will be published to public data marts. Users will be able to access, analyze and visualize the data as Web maps, Web pages, GIS datasets or spreadsheets. Automated processes using extract, transform and load (ETL) functions will be used to move the information from one structure, where it is easy to maintain, to others, where it is easy to use.

This diagram shows a high-level view of the NLWIS technical architecture. (Click for larger image)

The development team builds on commercial off-the-shelf technology to bring together distributed databases into a single integrated environment. The GIS environment was recently upgraded to ESRI's ArcGIS 9.2. Citrix technology will be used, allowing data managers and users to manipulate large datasets over the department's wide-area network. Users will have fast, secure and reliable access to applications and data.

Phase 3 will deliver new applications and improve Web services on the new enterprise system. NLWIS will have more tools and datasets available through partnerships and collaboration with the public and private sectors. Phase 4 is designed to give clients the ability to use their own data with NLWIS geospatial Web services and applications so they can render the information they need and create their own interpretations. By the end of Phase 4, data access and linkages between collaborators will be enhanced and a new, capability-rich suite of Web services and applications will have been introduced.

Following national standards
NLWIS services, tools and applications will conform to the standards endorsed by the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI). They mirror many international geomatics standards. GeoConnections is a national partnership program, led by the federal department of Natural Resources Canada, which is mandated to evolve and promote the CGDI. This infrastructure provides standards, protocols and specifications for NLWIS and other Canadian organizations to collect and exchange geographic information over the Internet. The standards allow the sharing of geospatial data across different systems and thereby avoid costly duplication. The owners of information retain "control" over their data, allowing easy updates and sharing.

For example, various levels of government in Canada collect an array of geospatial data on soil quality, air quality, water quality, disease outbreaks, inventories of forests, critical infrastructure like roads and waterlines, endangered species, etc. Sharing geographic information from different sources can result in important efficiencies and better decision making. Users benefit by working with the most up-to-date, accurate data and getting them quickly and easily to render their customized information. Furthermore, since the same standards often apply to geospatial data infrastructures run by other countries, data from standards-based Canadian and international sources will be compatible.

Using interoperable technology
Many of the GIS standards upon which NLWIS and CGDI are building are published by the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC). The nature of GIS applications requires seamless integration and sharing of geospatial data from a variety of providers, which have their own data models and storage structures. To solve the interoperability problems, OGC has introduced publicly available interface specifications.

The NLWIS portal already provides access to six data products using the interfaces that implement the OGC's OpenGIS Web Map Service (WMS) Implementation Specification, the OpenGIS Web Feature Service (WFS) Implementation Specification, and the OpenGIS Geography Markup Language (GML) Encoding Specification. The data products include Agri-Environmental Indicators, Agro-Pedological Atlas of the South Eastern Montreal Plain in Quebec, National Ecological Framework, Plant Hardiness Zones and Soil Landscapes of Canada. These products can be used by any WMS- and/or WFS-enabled client application.

The WMS allows users to produce maps and map layers from geospatial data as well as perform basic queries on these layers. It can be customized with encodings that implement the OpenGIS Styled Layer Descriptor (SLD) Implementation Specification. Clients can specify custom styles like color and feature symbolization that the WMS will use to render a map layer. It is also possible to store a snapshot of the WMS using an implementation of the OpenGIS Web Map Context Document Implementation Specification. This standard document describes a particular map derived from WMS layers, including styling and projection information. Although NLWIS does not provide direct support to these add-ons, both the SLD and Context Document can be used with NLWIS geospatial Web services.

The WFS stores and serves the raw geospatial data encoded in GML. Users can access data features directly, including detailed attributes. With filter encoding, spatial and attribute filters can be applied so that only a subset of data is returned.

NLWIS is considering implementing other standards.
Having databases and applications adhere to CGDI standards allows different layers of information to be combined into one online map or other product. The new geospatial Web services that NLWIS is developing will help Canadians better understand their situations and challenges, as well as opportunities and possible solutions, vis-Ã -vis land-use decision making.

Published Thursday, August 30th, 2007

Written by Julie Leese

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