Roberta Balstad Miller, Director, CIESIN, Columbia University
There is a growing recognition worldwide that interoperability is essential to the Information Society.This is not a surprise to those who deal with geospatial data, where the need for hardware and software interoperability was recognized over a decade ago with the formation of the OpenGIS Consortium. Increasingly, however, interest in interoperability is spreading beyond information, hardware, and software professionals and is being expressed both by longstanding and new users of data and information and by those who wish to advance development around the globe.
Under the auspices of the United Nations, the World Summit on the Information Society was held in Geneva on December 10-12, 2003, to explore how the resources of the information society could be used to improve conditions for individuals and communities in all nations and to advance sustainable development and the Millennium Development Goals.In preparation for the Summit, the International Council of Science (ICSU), together with UNESCO and CODATA, called a preparatory meeting in Paris to discuss the role of science in the information society. One of the conclusions of that meeting, published prior to the Summit as the Agenda for Action, was to "promote interoperability principles ....to facilitate cooperation and effective use of collected information and data."
In December, the nations attending the Summit approved a Declaration of Principles that underscored the scientists' concern, calling for "the development and use of open, interoperable, non-discriminatory and demand-driven standards that take into account needs of users and consumers." Standardization is, the Declaration emphasized, a building block of the information society.
The growing global interest in interoperability is proceeding from a variety of directions.In the geospatial professions, it is a reflection of the rapid expansion in data resources for practical applications and the use of these data for management, decision-making, and governance.This trend is facilitated by the fact that geospatial identifiers are increasingly available for many if not most types of data.This, combined with new data availability through remote sensing, particularly high resolution remote sensing data, provides unparalleled opportunities for the development of new applications of digital data. At the same time, there is a recognition within both developed and developing nations not only that interoperability is essential for the integration and use of geospatial data but also that common, user friendlyuser-friendly standards are necessary to permit interoperability.In a series of reports recently published by the National Academy of Science, it was emphasized that common digital data standards are essential both for the development of practical applications of remote sensing data and for scientific research uses of data.
In an increasingly interdependent global economy, bound together by an increasingly global information technological infrastructure, the definition and use of common standards cannot be confined to single sector of the economy nor to any single nation or group of nations. Indeed, the very process of defining common standards must change from emphasizing standards developed and agreed to by the producers of geospatial software and hardware to standards developed and agreed to by the producers and the users of the data, software, and hardware, working together.
The new users of geospatial data who need to be involved in the development of common standards for interoperability will be spread across the globe in countries that have previously not been involved in standards setting and they will be employing disparate software and multiple generations of technology.If they are not brought into the process of defining standards, and if the evolving standards for geospatial data do not reflect the technological, data and application needs of users in the developing world, individuals in these countries will develop their own practices related to geospatial data use. This could effectively close them off from integration in global data activities and close a growing and increasingly important market for geospatial software. Such a division could eventually replace the digital divide with a new "iron curtain" across the Information Society, separating the geospatial industry and its customers in developed and developing nations."
The Information Society that
was discussed in Geneva is not a future phenomenon.It is here.And it
is inhabited by individuals in many countries who need to be brought into
the process of standards setting.As the task of developing and using functional
standards for interoperability becomes more complicated, the rewards become
even greater.With functional interoperability in geospatial data, the
resources of the Information Society can be a powerful force for development
and prosperity across the globe, or they can effectively divide countries,
people, and markets into independent and separate groups.The choice is
up to us.