Beyond SDI – Greg Scott (UN GGIM)

Towards an Integrated Geospatial Information Paradigm

The first iterations of Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) development emerged in the mid-1980s, designed to promote economic development through supporting the objectives of governments and supporting environmental sustainability. However, SDI’s took a substantial step forward in the early 1990s when the United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) established an interagency Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) to coordinate the ‘development, use, sharing, and dissemination of surveying, mapping, and related spatial data’. OMB Circular A16 of 1992 (revised 2002) defined the SDI as ‘the technology, policies, standards, human resources and related activities to acquire, process, distribute, use, maintain and preserve spatial data’.

Over time, the literature has provided many similar definitions that generally reflect SDIs and National Spatial Data Infrastructures (NSDIs) as being ‘coordinated actions of nations and organizations that promote the awareness and implementation of complimentary policies, common standards and institutional arrangements for the development and availability of interoperable digital geographic data and technologies to support decision making at all scales for multiple purposes’. Such SDI concepts, while reflecting the primary focus on geospatial data and its use, validated the essential role geospatial information would play in modern society; an essential role that still applies to this day. One of the greatest virtues of SDIs have been their ability to facilitate and promote geospatial data sharing throughout all levels of government, academia, the private sector, civil society, and the general community, thus enabling the effective use of geospatial information for sustainable national development and a multitude of every day map and location-based requirements.

However, technology is influencing and transforming almost every aspect of our lives, and all sectors of industry and the economy at an unprecedented pace and scale. This digital transformation is similarly having a major impact on the geospatial industry, creating innovative technological enablers and applications, and generating previously unimaginable amounts of location‐referenced information. These technologies and processes are not only disruptive, but they are continually evolving, providing new opportunities for innovation and enabling business, industry and governments to be more agile, to adapt and transform their own internal processes, and to scale-up capability more quickly than in the past.

As we undergo almost continuous digital transformation and disruption, three key factors now challenge the limitations of a traditional SDI. The first is the recent and growing availability of more diverse data and data types and needs that are now more relevant and dependent on geospatial data than were originally considered. This reflects both technology evolution and the new and emerging data ecosystem that is more dependent on both ‘location’ and ‘integration’. Big data, structured and unstructured data, and other realities pressure the current limitation of SDI structures, as more of these external data add potential value to everyday queries for information. Further, while some of this data is geospatially referenced, much of it is not – but needs to be.

The second limitation is the growing demand for data integration, fusion and analysis. Historically, SDIs have been very structured repositories (siloes) of valuable geospatial information, with defined and managed (separate) datasets and themes, such as transport networks (road, rail, waterways, etc.), elevation and depth, boundaries (legal, administrative, and statistical), addresses, and water, etc. Today, these data are assets that are more dynamic, and must be more flexible, readable and timely to meet diverse and specific local and national requirements; and they need to be scalable and ‘integrated’ with other data and sectors.

The third is that the principal focus of SDIs has just been geospatial data. While an SDI is a core and valuable component, a national geospatial program is much more than the data. What is needed to establish or maintain an integrated national geospatial program is not sufficiently addressed by the SDI. Past efforts at achieving an SDI have focused on ‘creating SDI arrangements’ rather than developing national geospatial capacity to address priority societal, economic and environmental decisions. Efforts have not been integrated into the broader requirements and mandates of government.

There is another dimension that complicates these factors – the efforts of developing countries, whom are still simply trying to establish SDIs based on good practice, but in ways that may now be outdated and inefficient. For example, as both digital disruption and digital transformation grow and gain mainstream momentum, the contrast between SDI development in Africa, as a developing region, and Europe, as a developed region, could not be starker. This contrast, which has existed for many years, provides an opportune time for reflection and resolving impediments moving forward. INSPIRE has been institutionalized in a very structured and regulated ‘development’ phase across Europe now for some 12 years, and anchored by SDI principles, objectives, implementing rules, actions and technical complexities of the same era. But technology, the data ecosystem and related architectures have evolved and moved ahead at considerable pace. It could be argued that the INSPIRE architecture is rapidly becoming outdated, based on ICT-concepts of the 2000-2008 era. These are lessons that the developing countries can learn from as a means to ‘leapfrog’ with more agile and lighter technology enablers. But they need guidance to do so.

These shortcomings have been recognized by the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) in the past 3-4 years, particularly as it has developed the Integrated Geospatial Information Framework (IGIF). Comprising three parts as separate, but connected, documents, the IGIF presents a forward-looking approach that creates an enabling environment where national governments can coordinate, develop, strengthen and promote efficient and effective use and sharing of geospatial information for policy formulation, decision-making and innovation. It focuses on geospatial information that is integrated with any other meaningful data to solve societal and environmental problems, and acts as a catalyst for economic growth and opportunity, and stimulates improved decision-making for national development priorities and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Importantly, the IGIF builds on previous efforts in planning and implementing SDI and NSDIs. These implementations have historically focused on the collection of data and the implementation of technologies. In contrast, the IGIF additionally focuses on the governance, policy, financial, capacity and engagement processes necessary to collect, maintain, integrate and share geospatial information, through all levels of government and society, in a modern and enabling technology environment. The IGIF recognizes that the future role of the SDI needs to be different to what it is today, a ‘knowledge infrastructure’ that can be used for data integration, analysis, modelling, aggregation, fusion, communication, and for organizing and delivering data across disciplines and organizations. The SDI of the future, fuelled by high quality, timely and reliable fundamental geospatial data, can provide the means to organize and deliver core geographies for many national outcomes – including sustainable development.

The IGIF, as an integrated framework, also helps in other ways. It allows those countries that have already successfully implemented NSDI capabilities, and achieved several of the IGIF strategic pathways, to build upon this existing progress and investment. More importantly, the IGIF offers a new paradigm and mechanism to further strengthen nationally integrated geospatial information management and the desired transformational change that is required.

Greg Scott, UN-GGIM Secretariat
Environment Statistics and Geospatial Information Branch
United Nations Statistics Division

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