Why Europe Needs to Provide its Own Public Geodata

By Jo Walsh

Last week, I asked my friend Norm Vine, a stalwart of the open source GIS community, if he could introduce me to someone at the U.S. Geological Survey who might be prepared to make a public statement about public access to national mapping data being a good thing for the national economy. He seemed genuinely perplexed for a moment, as if I'd just asked him to put me in touch with a fish that might be prepared to make a public statement on how water is a good thing for the marine ecology.

In the U.S., public access to geographic data, "geodata" for short, has always been taken for granted as being part of the national heritage. Norm suggested that in the U.S., one of the reasons to have a government is to have good map data. George Washington himself was a surveyor and mapmaker. The interior of the North American continent was unknown to the colonists. In order to establish autonomy in the face of the colonial powers, they had to create and share accurate spatial models of where they were.

At that time, Europe was gripped by bitter feuds over scarce but well-mapped resources. Quarrels resulted in attempts to gain access to the external resources vital to victory. Different colonial powers treated the maps that they made and collected very differently. Philip II kept the national maps of Spain under lock and key. Maps were powerful military technologies for both attack and defense, and thus were kept as military secrets. The British Empire published its maps openly and they were reprinted widely. When you look at the modern maps of Newfoundland, of the whole North American Eastern Seaboard, it is the British-applied names that have stayed with us to the present day.

Modern Europe is very different; the colonies are gone. In place of internal competition is the ideal of free trade in goods and free movement of citizens, a diplomatic association, and a co-prosperity zone. European governments work together through the tripartite structure that is the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers in order to design common legislative standards that will allow, or oblige, national agencies to co-operate. Sharing geographic data across borders is a keystone in the European effort to collaboratively manage resources, create fairer governance structures and contribute to each others' economic prosperity.

The national mapping agencies (NMA) of Europe sometimes seem to be living in the colonial past. Public geodata are kept under lock and key, through copyright and commercial licensing terms that are prohibitive to ordinary citizens and spare-time, free-software enthusiasts who want to undertake amateur GIS projects. Europe's governing agencies, especially those that collect census information and manage resource networks, find it hard to cooperate. They speak different languages, use different cadastral and spatial models, and use different technology platforms and sets of standards internally. Europe's current loosely joined spatial data infrastructures are not only unpredictable; they're not even predictably unpredictable.

The proposed INSPIRE Directive (press release) on establishing a common spatial data infrastructure in Europe is the latest and greatest in a long series of initiatives undertaken by NMA representatives to fix some of these problems. INSPIRE aims to establish common standards for describing the physical world and the things in it, and to establish a framework across which different agencies that collect data can share data with one another. A common framework is something that Europe badly needs to maintain integrity.

The terms in which INSPIRE is being dictated reflect the false dichotomy which has troubled the internal governance of the European Union deeply over the last year. In the red corner, the "Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism" proposes(?) privatizing public services that used to be managed by the state, regardless of whether the market will provide the same and necessary level of service. In the blue corner, the "old-fashioned centrist socialism” proposes(?) maintaining state ownership of public support services, whether or not it makes functional or financial sense to do so. If the European debate has to be a question of taking sides, then the privatizing and liberalizing tendency is "winning." It is using market logic and protective market instruments to reinforce itself. Each time the INSPIRE Directive draft has gone to a new stage in the co-decision process, the thematic types of data that it covers decrease; therefore the options that the public will have to even view images of geodata, let alone get access to them and work with them in their own GISs, are decreasing. The second version of the INSPIRE Directive has a new emphasis on protecting the intellectual property rights of the agencies that collect and distribute public geodata.

NMAs are under a lot of pressure to perform well financially on government spreadsheets. The data they collect, after all, have the power to generate an immense quantity of new economic value, in particular in the design of new kinds of intelligent transport systems for goods and for people. Europe's GALILEO project, a global navigation satellite system, is touted mostly for the transformational potential it can affect on transportation systems. GALILEO is a good case for a "middle way" in providing all citizens access to a free, public service, overseen by government and maintained by private industrial efforts. There is a guarantee that GALILEO will provide a useful free signal, with ultra-high-accuracy signals available at a price, for crucial infrastructural and safety-critical operations. GALILEO is also an attempt to lessen Europe's growing economic and social dependency on the GPS system provided by the U.S. government and its military agencies. All the public domain mapping data that people all over the world are trying to use to build the new geospatial Web - Landsat imagery, STRM terrain models, the GeoNET gazetteer of world placenames - is provided for free and in the public domain by the U.S. government and its military agencies.

As Europe moves into the 21st century, it needs to design a common spatial data infrastructure that works for all of its citizens. INSPIRE is not that infrastructure. The NMAs that designed it are quite rightly fearful for their role, with increasingly viable commercial alternatives to the data they collect and provide on the one hand, and government pressure to privatize formerly state-owned information infrastructure and gain short term profit from it, on the other. INSPIRE does not reflect the full debate around, or the full potential in, spatial data infrastructure as a tremendous engine of research innovation, new kinds of economic activity, and a reformed practice of civic engineering.

So far the debate has been largely polarized between "information wants to be free!" and "you get what you pay for!" There are plenty of alternative models that can exist. GALILEO indicates where a good one may be - the offering of generalized geodata, lower-accuracy but still usable for most applications, free to access and free for use by the public. NMAs, or whatever kind of new agency succeeds them in the information market, can charge large commercial players for ultra-high-accuracy data and still find it possible to recoup some of their costs. Many European academics, researchers, small business persons and open source software developers are crying out for public access to the geodata that describe their world. They offer many new and accurate insights into how Europe can overcome the description problems inherent in having 25 different spatial models in as many different languages.

I started talking about this with Norm Vine, because I've been working with Benjamin Henrion of the Foundation for Free Information Infrastructures. Henrion worked hard to roll back the Software Patents Directive that would have put the brakes on the potential for small businesses and academics in Europe to create their own software. Henrion and I are putting together a wiki website at which people can: learn more about the history of INSPIRE; find out how to get involved in the lobbying process; find others who consider INSPIRE to be designed without proper public consultation and without consideration for the negative economic and social effects that it may have. We've also started a public petition to give to members of the European Parliament. We’re urging them to look again at what must appear to most people outside of the geographic information industry to be a pretty obscure technical directive. But they underestimate the impact it will actually have on how Europe is managed and governed.

If you're in Europe, please support this effort by signing the petition, talking to your non-GI friends about it and asking them to sign it too. If you're outside Europe, keep watching this space. The decisions made here and now about the next generation of spatial data infrastructure may impact your rights to get access to public geodata describing the world around you, and faster than you think.

Published Tuesday, February 21st, 2006

Written by Jo Walsh

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