Challenges before Spatial Data Infrastructure
Experts discuss the challenges before SDI and the road ahead
Governance is the most demanding challenge to overcome
“There is nothing like a challenge to bring out the best in man,” Sean Connery once said, addressing neither SDI or geospatial information. However, his quote holds a key to how we can choose to address the many and continued challenges in working with SDI on national, regional and global levels.
Even though we can agree that the challenges are many, we may not fully agree on their character — not to mention on the means we should use to meet and overcome them.
We each face different challenges, depending on the angle we take on SDI and the role we fulfil as data providers, users or application developers. My view is therefore one of many, and is coloured by my position as a European public sector employee.
In Denmark, we have developed and maintained our national SDI over the course of more than 15 years. Our main goal was – and remains – to position the SDI as a backbone for eGovernment. This will ensure that the public sector can harvest the many benefits inherent in spatial information through their everyday work routines. With a national, open and free data policy in force since January 2013 (http://eng.gst.dk/), we now also extend these possibilities to the private sector.
The EU directive INSPIRE (INfrastructure for SPatial InfoRmation in Europe) aims to establish the basis for easier and more efficient sharing of data across EU’s many borders. The aim is interoperability and the means is standardization via common and legally binding regulations addressing metadata, datasets and network services. During the still ongoing implementation of the directive, awareness of the importance of SDI has increased, also beyond the geospatial domain. Thus awareness has grown regarding obstacles and challenges in reaching the goal of easy access and beneficial use of spatial information.
From a national perspective, governance appears to be far the most demanding challenge to overcome. And what do I mean then with governance?
As SDI consists of many entangled and interrelated elements, and is developing in the direction of many new and varied user demands, its complexity is growing as well. In order to make sure the SDI “machine” is running efficiently and can continuously meet user demands, it is necessary to steer, make agreements, organise, prioritize and strategize. In short, to govern.
We tend to understand governance as something that´s conducted in steering committees, on coordination boards and at the political level. That is still true and necessary, but we also need to think about and apply governance at all levels – from technique to decision making – when developing and maintaining our SDI. We also need to connect these levels and look at governance as a whole.
The main reason for working with SDI in the first place is that it should be used – we can all agree on that. Whether a public agency, a citizen, a student, a private enterprise or another stakeholder entirely, each user has unique needs and demands that the SDI has to meet. This puts pressure on our ability to prioritize and requires structured reuse of data and shared services. Only in this way can we keep SDI development as cost-efficient as possible.
The growing complexity, the shared services and the user driven data modelling all call for governance. As in the butterfly effect, even small changes to a data model can cause great inconvenience to a single user who depends on a specific service to deliver a specific dataset. In the worst case, it can make it impossible to use, and can lead to economic loss by continually adapting the end user systems to small changes.
Likewise, one service that is not operational can mean that a whole chain of interconnected services does not function, leaving the user with an error message and no data.
So how do we get this complexity running smoothly so the user can get information as easily as switching on the light, without having to concern herself with the underlying infrastructure?
My bid is that we need to address governance with the same amount of importance and energy as we are using on the technical elements of the SDI.
It is time to head for end user satisfaction by implementing location as service component
There are no doubts that INSPIRE, as legal and technical initiative carried out by the European Commission fully politically supported by the European Union, has interested and is still fascinating the international community of geo information. From South America to Far East, as I personally had the opportunity to verify in technical and professional missions, the interoperability dogma is widely accepted and the praxis of concentrating on metadata and web services as well.
INSPIRE 2014 Conference demonstrated that individuals, organisations and also nations, referring to thousands of pages of regulation, specification and guidance documents, could relate to their own benefits. It has also to be recognised that presently the shared datasets are still very basic while the organizations’ behaviour of not sharing data is still often to be seen in many countries. European nations differ among themselves on final It is time to head for end user satisfaction by implementing location as service component user satisfaction while the involvement of the local public authorities in realising the National SDIs deeply varies within the Union nations. The paradigm of data flow from central to local and vice-versa is conjugated differently depending on the administration organizational and functioning model . INSPIRE application, use and achievements, besides the reporting to the Commission, are to avoid any infringement procedure which may be applied to the nation not meeting the requirements of the directive. The success of interoperability and of SDI depends on the cultural environment where it is going to be applied. It has to be considered that INSPIRE is not only a technical directive but it is having some substantial ideological, political and economic fundamental components. Interoperability is the tool while the principles are the foundations.
INSPIRE addresses national data sets and deals with themes specifically oriented to environment and the representation scale is located in the middle and small cartographic range. On the other hand, presently, the most used geographic information for satisfying end user needs is the micro geographic information. The answer of basic question “where” has the solution, for common users and citizens, in the large scale range about from 1:2000 to 1: 500, the typical walking distance. The semantic and visual aspect of the answer to “where” has also the most relevant value because the common end user is not interested in digits representing coordinates but in recognising the “place” described in an easy to understand model. To this regard INSPIRE sets the foundations but the already defined data specifications have to be developed to match the needs of semantic management of data sets and spatial knowledge.
It is matter of the fact that, for the time being, public central administrations, specially in Europe, delegate their functions more and more to local authorities. Data sets are originated locally for detailed purposes and at sufficiently large scale, they flow through the national SDI only if they are compliant to data specifications and services’ standard. The interoperability from local to central has to be in place for insuring the SDI running. Since data are originated locally and are shared accordingly to sub-national administration’s rule, it can be said that SDIs are very much dependent on local culture and local originated data.
Public administrations’ functioning modes, places fruition and use, toponyms and their languages or dialects are components of the culture. It is my opinion that in order to guarantee a strict adherence between GI and final users – citizens satisfaction, it is necessary to move from the position paradigm (the cartographic coordinates) to the location paradigm which solves the “where” issue and gives the location knowledge to the end user. SDIs are data and services oriented but it is time now to head for end user satisfaction by implementing location as service component. This is the challenge to be faced by public administrations implementing GI in public services provided to citizens.
The present situation is having a positive trend to develop in this sense offering to SDIs the way to fulfil the mandate of making data and services interoperable for user needs satisfaction. The so called Location Framework has been already pursued by some member states in Europe and it may be considered as the unifying system for providing GI integrated services to citizens.
Just considering the ancient maps not using exact cartographic and projection systems, they were not giving positioning data to users but location useful information for travellers, sailors and explorers. They were used for centuries in multi-cultural and multi-language environment: which are beautiful examples of interoperability, of distributed services and of standards. Are we aiming to that?
There are problems of data relevance provision to ensure the harmonization of different kinds of data
At a time of rapid development of information technologies state institutions and agencies in Ukraine are experiencing a transition from paper archives and stack of paper reports with a variety of statistical and attribute data to automated systems with which you can get fast access to any information.
Since the beginning of 2013 in cooperation with the World Bank in Ukraine was introduced National Cadastral System (NCS).
NCS is a multilevel hitech system that includes integrated databases, informational and geoinformational technologies, digital electronicmaps, airphoto- and space pictures in which work, serve and maintaine few thousand professionals all over Ukraine.
Also in 2013, the online public cadastral map was opened, which contains all land parcels and basic information about them: cadastral number, form of ownership, purposive appointment, square and graphic display on ortho-photoplan. Public cadastral map became one of the most popular web resources of the country – in 2013 it was visited over 3.5 mln. times.
To fill in the state land cadastre with indigital form data took four months to converte from paper to electronic form of 300 000 sheets of cartographic materials and 24 milions sheets of State Land Acts.
The time spent by cadastral registers for the registration of land parcel and issue of extracts – impresses. Before the NCS started to operate, the registration could take several weeks, or even months, and «facilitating» of faster registration often served to corruption actions, but now such factor is excepted.
Thanks to the implementation of new software, the average time for the complete registration process through Ukraine (starting from filling out the application, up to printing of the land register and extract) was 21 minutes. Previously, approximately the same time took a citizen to only write the application for registration.
National cadastral system was highly praised by the international inspection experts from the World Bank and the FAO (UN). The Project on Cadastre Development between the government of Ukraine and the World Bank hailed success and caused a great deal of attention that allows Ukraine the opportunity for starting negotiations on national geo-spatial data infrastructure development in Ukraine on the basis of the State Land Cadastre (NSDI).
The State Agency for Land Resources of Ukraine (hereinafter – SALR) and the State Enterprise “State Land Cadastre Centre” (hereinafter – SLCC) has analyzed the situation in Ukraine on the work of various ministries, agencies and organizations dealing with geospatial data.
We found that geospatial data are developed and maintained by individual agencies and departments, and have administrative-territorial and industry sector focus. Lack of unified standards and requirements for shape, size and type of data complicates their storage, conversion into electronic form and search, and the use of various software products while collecting new data makes it impossible to complete their processing and analysis.
Analysis of work of different authorities also indicates that information is created and stored in parallel in different systems, which results in additional expenditure of time, financial and human resources. In addition, a variety of duplicated data complicates their updates.
These problems do not allow providing end-users with reliable information. Similar problems are typical for Ukraine and for the most countries of the world, including European. The solution approach of these problems was the creation of spatial data infrastructure.
In order to test our ideas, in 2013 was decided to carry out works on the pilot project to develop and implement NSDI in Ukraine. Thus, experts from SALR and SLCC have conducted a pilot project to establish such a system (prototype) on the territory of one administrative unit (1,000 sq. km.).
The prototype of system established under the pilot project include 22 thematic datasets available online and over 200 of information layers filled on an already existed electronic map of Ukraine: land plots, water and forest resources, mineral resources, ground and underground utilities and networks, buildings and addresses, infrastructure objects, statistic and demographic indicators, taxes data, etc.
While working on a pilot NSDI project our specialists followed the recommendations of INSPIRE Directive as well as the experience of other countries. Requirements of the Directive have been taken as a basis for structuring data storage, from the standpoint of the unification approaches to work with data.
Creation of NSDI in Ukraine has all preconditions. In particular, developed a draft law “On the National Geospatial Data Infrastructure”. Under authority of SALR operates state-owned enterprises that are able to provide administration of NSDI. The system of executive establishment and organizations of land resources management have experienced, energetic, proactive staff, moreover, are existed tested technologies and experience of creation of such systems. The confirmation of this is the working system of the State Land Cadastre, cadastre of land and objects of natural reserve fund, and a series of holding of successful pilot projects in some regions of Ukraine for working with geospatial data.
However, there are some problems that are systemic and exist not only in Ukraine. These are problems of data relevance provision to ensure the harmonization of different kinds of data and creation of a platform for such systems. The development of NSDI throughout the whole territory of the country will enable to have a complete electronic picture of Ukraine in one place, that will affect the adoption of effective management decisions; reduction of the budget costs on all levels; transparency and investments; the possibility of modeling of emergency situations and ways of eliminating them; as well as provision of all types of analysis to support the economic development of the country.
The biggest challenge is the problem of effectiveness
We got experience and we are the world leaders in SDI implementations. We met a problem of effectiveness. We need an European funding to solve the issues we are the first to encounter at this level. Besides, fine governance and good openness to users will allow to overpass the technical obstacles we encounter here or there.
We are implementing the 10 years old dreams of experts, designing the European Spatial Data Infrastructure as an open and decentralised framework. We got collectively, in European Union, the biggest experience in the world about SDI. We have learnt so many things about coordination, governance over technical points, real uses of metadata, maturity of standards…
Some of issues with data sharing and reuse we have known in my old and large country – at European scale! – are on the way to be corrected: it is easier to get metadata and datasets, even if it is not always through OGC’s services but sometimes through the contact address in metadata. Today, in France, most of the producers know that the rule is to share, and the limitation to public access the exception. Of course, some points have to be strengthened. One is quite important in my mind, that is getting out of the GI’s box to enlarge the communities of developers and, finally, of users. During the 2014 INSPIRE’s Conference, Thomas Wojaczek, the responsable for INSPIRE activities in con terra society, answers to a question that his “dream would be a translator between INSPIRE and the others communities”. This will be a major issue in the close future to get a good return on investment in SDIs.
And some other points are painful. Most of them are connected to the architecture: control access and authentification, registers, production of the INSPIRE schemas in GML, the ability to be used by humans. In my opinion, it is not really a fault made in 2000-2006. We needed to light the future to be able to run the race. But now some of the high objectives we have accepted, specifically in terms of delay, are hard to achieve because of the lack of maturity of some tools.
So, facing to public authorities, we have to go back to the dream – and to the absolute necessity – of an easy-touse world of datasets and services with limited efforts. The biggest challenge is the problem of effectiveness.
Just an example : we are certainly among the firsts to have developed so highly complex mandatory schemas for interoperable data specifications. We consider that this complexity is the cost of interoprability, and it could only be the beginning. But they are too complex for GIS-type QGis and their users. We need either improve GIS, or install an intermediate reprocessing (but it would surely be costly). The challenge will be to improve tools, and maybe get open source softwares under European funding to give to Europe the opportunity to achieve its own SDI.
For the INSPIRE Conference, I described what could be the future of our SDI: needing datasets for a public consultation about wind mills implementation, one would type “public environmental enquiry : wind mills” on a device and get back a pack of datasets (or SD services), even if the project is near two others countries with foreign languages. He would check the metadata and begin to add it to the project’s data. What else?
That would mean semantic interoperability in different languages (in our point of view, that’s the most valuable result of the INSPIRE data specifications and have to be continued), registers and management of codelists, and real interoperability. More important, that would lead to hide the complexity of the infrastructure under a cover of applications that we have to build or let build over.
In conclusion, the success of INSPIRE, as an European infrastructure, is not yet an evidence. There is a possibility that the complexity, the lack of technical maturity and the distance between experts and users lead to a formal compliance with the rules without achieving interoperability. But we begin to see the first results of the investments made, and it sounds good. So I am confident that a fine governance and a good openness to users will allow to overpass the technical obstacles we encounter here or there
Agencies participating in NSDI are yet to evolve suitable Geo-ICT Strategies
NSDI is at a threshold of major transformation with the emphasis of its activities gradually shifting from pure ‘Data Domain’ of an enabling infrastructure to the ‘Product Domain’ of a performing infrastructure. With the proposed launch of the National GIS and State SDI Initiatives during the 12th Plan, NSDI is gearing itself towards providing an effective governance of GIS processable data assets and making those accessible as standard services for the development of applications and products.
The coordinating infrastructure of NSDI became operational following its approval by the Union cabinet in June 2006. Its underlying Geo-ICT infrastructure consisting of the architectures, processes, and skills spread over various agencies has started to function over the past few years. Some of them have been enabled to make metadata and standardised interoperable map services accessible for reference and concurrent visualisation through the single window access mechanism of the India Geo Portal. Interoperable web map services from selected agencies could now be accessed on a standard GIS package for development of applications and products. There is a need for provision of a catalogue of accessible data services based on ISO 19119 standards for automatic access and manipulation. Other agencies are expected to join this data service network with the operationalisation of their data nodes.
Support of a network of R & D institutions under the Natural Resources Data Management System (NRDMS) Programme of Department of Science & Technology has primarily enabled NSDI and the pilot scale State SDIs over the past years. Promotion of free and open source packages has been an important strategy of NSDI in building the data network.
There are however major challenges to be overcome before NSDI is put to effective utilisation:
Agencies participating in NSDI are yet to evolve suitable Geo-ICT Strategies in order to contribute effectively to geospatial data sharing and utilisation. Scope of such strategies, the systemic competencies, and the governance procedures need to be further evolved.
Although the traditional business infrastructure like the organisational hierarchy of personnel, the existing business processes, and the required traditional skills are in place for provision and sharing of geo-spatial data in hard copies and CDs to the end users, those continue to be provided mostly in legacy formats (built upon cartographic data models) and not suitable for quick processing/ manipulation. Re-engineering of data sets based on open standards is thus an essential pre-requisite and has to be quickly carried out by the agencies for their successful utilisation.
Data governance needs further improvement with deployment of required technical artefacts like registers. Registry should function as a common reference point for feature definitions, feature descriptions, machine-readable data models/ schemas, and feature (classification) codes etc. These are essential for correct analysis and interpretation of applications/ services and products.
Lack of market orientation for Geo-ICTproducts and services, insufficient inter-sectoral data flow, and institutional inertia have been some of the other bottlenecks those need to be overcome in the coming phase of the NSDI implementation.
Inadequate alignment between the existing data and the ubiquitous web, lack of information-based decisionmaking culture, insufficient and slow uptake of standards by the participating institutions, inherent difficulties in building the required skill set amongst the GIS personnel of different institutions, slow pace of implementation/ framing of required policies, non-availability of and inaccessibility to spatial data of desired resolution and currency, incompatible data, heterogeneities in semantic, thematic and syntactic aspects of data sets, low communication bandwidth, cost of commercial GIS packages and non-affordability of their cost, lack of user-friendliness of processing tools; and inadequate capacity amongst the end-users are some of the factors responsible for inadequate integration of NSDI data services with the business workflows of end user organisations.
In the immediate future, the challenges in capture and use of geo-spatial data sets of right resolution and currency are proposed to be met by larger scale surveys and map preparation using active sensors (LIDAR), deployment of virtual reference systems, use of sensors for thematic data collection, and the data processing tools for conversion of data to right-kind of information for decision support.
Some of these challenges are proposed to be addressed while setting up the National Geographical Information System (NGIS) and the State level Spatial Data Infrastructures. Overall improvement in the economic and social environments of the geo-spatial data is expected to facilitate successful building and utilisation of the NSDI network.
The views expressed here are in personal capacity.