Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) - A Symbol of Confidence and Trust

October 6, 2010

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What do a community youth mapping project in Alexandria, Va., a Cape Cod Commission effort to map water wells, and a law enforcement agency's use of satellite imagery to certify swimming pools have in common? Each is the subject of a recent newspaper article and while not unique on its own, when put together they illustrate key points about the current and future prospects for spatial data and associated technologies, the importance of easily accessible and usable spatial data, the value and economic ramifications of spatial data, legal and policy issues, and management and governance questions.

The importance of easily accessible and usable spatial data
Accessing, sharing and using spatial data are the essence of a spatial data infrastructure. This does not happen automatically. Obtaining and using geospatial information easily and effectively requires an infrastructure - a basic underlying physical, cyber and organizational structure necessary for the operation of an activity. A spatial data infrastructure (SDI) is that structure of technology, policies, criteria, standards and people necessary for improved acquisition, sharing and use of spatial data. It is a collection of many networks of spatial data that connect together and, in the United States, form the national network known as the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI).

These connections are made through common protocols, policies and practices that define how to interact through the infrastructure. Each news article mentioned above describes an application that requires data from several sources that are easy to access and use. While these articles do not identify an SDI, each is benefitting from SDI activities, either through informal or more formal means.

Value and economic ramifications
There is a general consensus that geospatial data are very valuable for many applications and uses. Each article talks about using spatial information and technology to address a specific concern and the expected benefits. While many government agencies and businesses are finding ways to implement spatial projects, there still is a lack of cost/benefit analyses to support the level of investment needed to more broadly develop and deploy interoperable systems and infrastructures. Even where cost/benefit analyses are developed, they seldom go beyond direct cost and benefit factors.

However, as the geospatial community is aware, the benefits are often indirect and future cost avoidance is difficult to quantify. A town supervisor who saw spatial information as a tool for swimming pool safety stated, "... I don't want to be the supervisor who attends a funeral of a child that drowns in a swimming pool." How do we account for the value of a child's life or that of a well-functioning ecosystem providing ground water that is safe to drink? Can we quantify the ways in which spatial information and technologies help protect public health and safety?

Legal and policy issues
One of these projects views spatial information as a way of helping youths connect with their community, find out about places to go and things to do, and as a tool to help prevent substance abuse and gang activity. In another project, spatial information helps to reduce chemical contamination of underground drinking water and its negative effects on people and animals. However, even with this potential for public benefit, the articles point out concerns about the impact on privacy rights and the use of spatial information as a way of conducting intrusive enforcement of regulations for the sake of generating more town revenue.

Implementing a spatial data infrastructure requires addressing different sets of concerns as the infrastructure matures. The legal and policy frameworks of the many participants in an NSDI vary greatly across the U.S. The current legal and policy framework for the NSDI at the federal level is applicable to federal agencies only. Many elements of this framework have been adapted for use in other sectors, but there are still great policy differences among organizations even within the federal sector. While there is no reason for all levels of government to be bound by a detailed set of requirements, there is need for a clear statement of national intent and for a set of national policies on the collection, sharing and use of geospatial information. We have the technological geoprocessing and geospatial services capability, a wealth of existing data, excellent technologies to collect new data, and many of the supporting standards for interoperability. A national legal and policy framework to provide guidelines and incentives to state and local communities would do much to help implement and sustain the NSDI and promote a more stable business climate for providers and users.
Management and governance
SDI is a big idea. It is built on many inputs and numerous interactions and has several participants. Inherently, an SDI is not a centralized activity. It consists of data from many different sources, a wide variety of technologies, many different user applications, and many organizations and people trying to figure out how and where they fit. It also calls for some changes in how organizations think about spatial data. A federal manager has described the need for a shift from the current model of starting each mapping endeavor as a blank page to a new model of starting by integrating existing data sources and building from there. Tying the pieces together into a functioning infrastructure requires management and governance. Collaboration, partnerships and agreements are needed to establish an environment where confidence and trust exist, and both daily and emergency operations take place efficiently. A governance structure that enables all sectors to work together for spatial data sharing and use does not exist. While in theory we should not need a formal governance structure to have all sectors work cooperatively on a national endeavor, the realities of our political, budgetary and administrative systems prove otherwise. Differences in budget levels, priorities and cycles make it difficult to do joint funding of SDI development on a significant scale; lack of agreement on roles for various sectors impedes progress, and lack of a national leadership structure makes it difficult to have all sectors equally represented in a national decision making process.

Organizations such as the Open Geospatial Consortium, where a framework of standards for interoperability is in place, are resolving the technical issues. While there is still work to do, we have seen that technology is not a barrier, but rather an enabler of SDIs. Technology will continue to change and advance, but there is a structure and track record of success to build on for future progress. This still leaves us with the questions of value and economic ramifications, legal and policy issues, and management and governance.

There are different ways of addressing these issues. In Europe, a legislative directive of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union established the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE). This directive has served to bring the member countries together to define and develop an infrastructure for the European community, which is based on the infrastructures of its members and made compatible by common implementing rules. The Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI) is a national program established through funding by the government of Canada. Two five-year budget investments have helped leverage investments from other sectors and have provided significant impetus for the creation of the CDGI with a network of strong partnerships. Leadership is provided by GeoConnections, a national partnership program led by Natural Resources Canada. In Australia, the Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure (ASDI) has been in existence for almost 15 years and has evolved from being primarily government oriented to now providing capabilities and services across a wide range of industries. ANZLIC - the Spatial Information Council and its Standing Committees - plays the lead role in developing and implementing the ASDI. Around the world there are other models which have developed to fit the legal and economic conditions of the nation or entity involved.

We need to continue working to address national level questions in the U.S. A National Geospatial Advisory Council (NGAC) has been established to provide advice and recommendations related to management of federal and national geospatial programs, and the development of the NSDI. The NGAC has representatives from different sectors of the geospatial community and brings them together to comment on geospatial policy and provide perspectives of these different geospatial community stakeholders. A lot has been done through voluntary participation and good will, but more is needed.

Value and economic ramifications - Several organizations have identified the need for better cost benefit analyses. Organizations such as the Open Geospatial Consortium, the Geospatial Information and Technology Association, the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors, and the National States Geographic Information Council could assist in building a compendium of cost benefit studies and help provide tools for use throughout the geospatial community.

Policy and legal - Management and governance - There have been many attempts within current authority to establish broad coalitions and processes for national action. The NGAC/FGDC partnership program and Imagery for the Nation are examples. Over the years there have been suggestions for broad geospatial/NSDI legislation and a number of bills have been enacted which include specific geospatial provisions. However, piecemeal legislation, part-time participation and goodwill are not enough to give us the ability to move ahead as rapidly as needed. It is time to actively seek legislation to establish clear incentive based authority and policy guidance. We need to provide incentives to communities across the country, establish national objectives and general guidelines, and create authority for a national body which can provide a governance structure.

My final thought goes back to the first article in this series. Over 70 years ago, aviator Beryl Markham said, "A map in the hands of a pilot is a testimony of man's faith in other men; it is a symbol of confidence and trust." We are in a less trusting world than Ms. Markham's. Rather, we are in a much more interconnected, networked world where we need to set up processes to re-establish trust. A spatial data infrastructure enabled by national policy, guidance and governance roles provides an underlying framework of legal, policy, management and governance structures. As individuals it is up to us to expedite the use of geospatial information and build the confidence and trust needed to work with others, by sharing our knowledge and understanding, spreading information about the value of spatial data infrastructures, and showing key decision makers that the improved use of geospatial information is important, worthwhile and valuable.


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