Spatial Data Infrastructures - Challenges and Opportunities

July 29, 2010

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This is the second in a series of articles which explores spatial data infrastructures (SDIs).

In the first article (Directions Magazine, February 22, 2010), I discussed how more than 70 years ago aviator Beryl Markham viewed maps as tools for communicating and for connecting a person to others. Likewise today, I believe that spatial data infrastructures (SDIs) can be tools for communication and for building stability in an uncertain world.

In order to be relevant and widely used, SDIs must be easy to operate, be adaptable to the changing needs of society and organizations, and be flexible to adjust to advances in technology. These SDI capabilities are part of the four critical principles that the National Research Council's Mapping Science Committee recommended in 1993 for the U.S. NSDI.

When the vision and concepts of SDIs began to take hold in the early 1990s, many of the tools necessary to fulfill the SDI vision were not yet available in the information technology and geospatial marketplace. Over the 20 or so years that SDIs have been in development, much has changed in terms of technology and in the level of widespread understanding about the usefulness of geospatial information. In some places, the SDIs have evolved in response to technological and societal changes, while in others, SDIs have been resistant to change for economic, policy and control reasons. However, in most cases SDIs still remain difficult for the user to navigate or do not meet the needs of a broad range of users.

Key challenges for SDIs include: how to evolve to incorporate new technologies; how to deal with the question of differing quality of data such as authorative data and data generated by crowdsourcing, volunteer networks etc.; how to expand SDI concepts into the practices of business and smaller units of government; and how to put in place the policy, financing and governance mechanisms that will promote and sustain SDIs over time.

SDIs are fundamentally a framework of standards, practices and relationships that incorporate many types of users and data to enable cooperation in sharing and using geospatial information. They should be dynamic rather than static so that over time, through a combined community effort, new technologies and practices can be added and barriers to change and progress can be removed or reduced.

Many SDIs now include Web services as a key component of their architecture. Common in SDIs are Web Mapping Services, Web Feature Services and other Web services supported by standards for interoperability developed by standards consortia and geospatial technology providers.

The rapid growth of new tools such as satellite imagery viewers, participatory mapping and mobile applications have begun to provide citizen access to geospatial tools as well, making some of the SDI core/framework data themes readily available for use by government, business and citizens. We have made progress but there is still a long way to go.

If we look at the availability and use of geospatial information in response to the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, we can get an idea of both the progress and the opportunity to do more. Widespread destruction created a tremendous need for assistance in Haiti and many countries and organizations responded to appeals for aid. The response to the need for geospatial/mapping data was outstanding. In a short period of time, companies, individuals, universities, non-governmental organizations and governments provided geospatial data and maps for use by first responders and relief organizations. New satellite imagery was collected and made available shortly after the earthquake struck, crowdsourcing tools were deployed to help gather and visualize information about what was happening on the ground, and data and maps were supplied by governments, businesses and not-for-profit organizations. This wealth of information was of great help to rescue workers, health providers and others. It also should be valuable for longer term recovery and rebuilding operations that will be needed to restore and improve the day-to-day lives of Haitian citizens.

However, is this the best practice for addressing the availability, sharing and use of geospatial information and services? Data that were already collected had to be identified and made available after the earthquake. Different interfaces and Web protocols often made it difficult for users to quickly bring data together. A variety of portals were established to host data, but they did not have a network of catalogue services to join. Metadata were unavailable for some data, and agreements (standards) for metadata for volunteer geographic information are not in place yet. And finally, the common guidelines for integration of these types of crisis efforts into an SDI are generally recreated each time an event occurs. If a mature network of SDIs was in place, much of the base geospatial information and services needed would have been readily accessible to be augmented by the new information collected to show the current situation, damage and ongoing response efforts.

The geospatial community's spirit of cooperation and willingness to respond to humanitarian needs overcame these problems by working and partnering with others, a key ingredient to successful SDI implementation. Barriers still exist, but many solutions such as metadata tools, data access mechanisms, standards for interoperability and suggested best practices for implementing geospatial technologies already exist or are in progress and are being used by many communities and organizations to build SDIs. With the increasing level of interoperability and with the development of common geospatial architectures, individual organizations can now build their own internal spatial data infrastructures to manage geospatial information as a critical enterprise asset. By using SDI best practices and reaching increasing levels of maturity, these enterprise spatial information systems will be able to evolve to become part of the network of community, regional, national or even global SDIs.

Big challenges still remain to integrate architectures, develop interoperable data models and create a climate that enables collaboration, innovation and sharing of geospatial data and services. New innovative and potentially disruptive technologies will continue to emerge and we will need to incorporate many of them into existing SDIs.

SDIs are complex and dynamic and as such require constant interaction among the involved parties in order for them to be effective. We seem to be able to respond when an emergency arises; can we now pull together to put in place more adaptable, user friendly SDIs to be a widely used resource of geospatial information and services?

At the 1999 National GeoData Forum, the participants agreed that nothing was gained by pessimism and that we needed to dream big dreams and push forward. This is even truer today, as we are in an age where the economic, ecological and social issues often seem insurmountable. But we have also seen through the example of the Haiti earthquake that people working together toward a common purpose can make a difference. The time is still right to realize the potential of geographic information and spatial data infrastructures if we can overcome our institutional and personal barriers and create collaborative relationships and ongoing communications among SDI stakeholders.

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