Beyond SDI – Ian Masser

Current trends in spatial data infrastructures – not one but many SDIs

It must be recognised that there are many different kinds of spatial data infrastructures (SDIs) and that the number of applications is likely to increase during the next ten years. In other words, there are likely to be not one, but many SDIs in practice in the future. These range from collections of volunteered geographic information (VGI) that are created to carry out a specific thematic task to public sector initiatives to promote the sharing of the data that is collected by a number of agencies as part of their administrative duties. In both these respects an SDI can be defined as ‘an evolving concept for facilitating and coordinating the management and sharing of geodata, with services, metadata, products, standards and inter-organisation arrangements and structures.’ (Cooper 2016, iii) This short note will examine the main features of volunteered geographic information SDIs first and then move on to consider the issues involved in public sector SDIs. The underlying message behind this note is that the two SDIs are not separate but complementary phenomena.

Volunteered geographic information SDIs

Goodchild’s (2007) paper on citizens as sensors, argues that VGI has the potential to be a significant source of geographers’ understanding of the earth. Motivating individuals to act voluntarily is far cheaper than any other alternative and the products of VGI are normally available to everybody.

The benefits of volunteered geographic information (VGI) are particularly evident in dealing with emergencies and disasters such as forest fires. Consequently, Goodchild and Glennon (2010, 240) have pointed out,

‘Agencies are inevitably stretched thin during an emergency, especially one that threatens a large community with loss of life and property. Agencies have limited staff, and limited ability to acquire and synthesize the geographic information that is vital to effective response. On the other hand, the average citizen is equipped with powers of observation, and is now empowered with the ability to geo-register those observations, to transmit them through the Internet, and to synthesize them into readily understood maps and status reports.’

The fundamental question for those developing SDIs in this category is: How can society employ the eyes and ears of the general public, their eagerness to help, and their recent digital empowerment, to provide effective assistance to responders and emergency managers?’

According to Coleman et al (2009), the development of VGI also creates opportunities for national mapping and cadastral agencies to update their databases although it raises questions regarding people’s motivation for participation. It is also unlikely that this will be not without cost for the organisations themselves.

In addition to these developments should be noted that new technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) can be used to explore areas where other solutions are either too costly or too slow to respond (see, for example, Gevaert 2018). Furthermore, drones can operate in hazardous environments or in areas where minimal infrastructure or support is available. This add a new dimension to the volunteered geographic informationcategory of SDIs.

Public sector SDIs

As a result of the developments discussed above it can be expected that a lot more SDIs will emerge over the next few years. These will cover an increasingly diverse range of possible applications and subject matter. Alongside these SDIs, the development of public sector SDIs will also continue to take place. With respect to these conventional SDIs, Dias et al (2012, 382) point out that public sector that these SDIs are built upon an existing installed resource data base. Inevitably this slows down their implementation. This is because, 

‘SDIs are not only about technology. Agreeing on common policies, standards and organizational structures is essential for bringing these technologies into use, and thus, realizing their potential benefits. The classic definition of SDIs being a set of policies, technologies and institutional arrangements to assist user communities in collecting, sharing and exploiting geospatial information resources …still proposes a valid set of requirements and a general means of achieving these goals. Its scope is broad enough to embrace even major shifts in its concepts and implementations.’ (Diaz et al 2012, p. 398).

One consequence of these developments is that it will be necessary to reconsider the role of users of spatial data infrastructures. With this in mind Budhatkoki et al (2008, 151) have pointed out that ‘contemporary SDIs are created for expert users by expert organisations.’ In circumstances such as this ‘the users of an SDI are often referred to as end users – a term which itself reflects their marginalised role as mere recipients of GI.’  They argue that this misses the point because SDI and VGI are not separate but complementary phenomena:

’Indeed, these can be brought within a single framework when the role of the user is reconceptualised to producer and VGI is included in the SDI related processes……this creates a hybrid model that draws on the synergy between the conceptual foundation of SDI and an extensive producer base of VGI’ (p.153).

The development of public sector SDIs in Europe during the last twenty years has been dominated by the formulation and implementation of Directive 2007/2/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 March 2007 establishing an Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE) for improving environmental data management in the European Community by 2020 (Commission of the European Communities 2007). Its objective is to make harmonised high-quality geographic information readily available to support environmental policies throughout Europe. INSPIRE is a legally mandated programme which brings the 28 national Member States together to build a spatial data infrastructure based on 34 related data themes. The European Commission (EC) began working on the Directive in 2001 and it was formally approved in 2007. The INSPIRE Directive is a multi-national, multi-agency, multi-disciplinary, multi-objective information infrastructure initiative. It includes not only themes related to the ongoing work of the established mapping and surveying community but also a wide range of different activities related to the environment that make up the European Community’s Environmental Action Programmes such as (public) organisations concerned with the disciplines of geology, hydrology, meteorology, oceanography, biogeography, and demography. Its implementation involves collaboration between the national Member States with diverse cultures and professional backgrounds. Such an initiative demands a collaborative and participatory approach which promotes capacity building. Looking back on INSPIRE from an insider’s perspective at the Commission’s Joint Research Centre, Craglia (2014, p32) has described it as ‘an infrastructure built on those of 28 different countries in 24 languages by a truly democratic process. INSPIRE is a role model not only in relation to the developments of SDI but more generally to the formulation of public policy at the European level.’

In the USA the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) advances state-led geospatial coordination for the nation. Founded in 1991 by state Geographic Information Officers and state-wide geographic information systems coordinators. It serves as a national forum to develop future-oriented geospatial leadership and advance sound policies and practices for geospatial activities and promotes the coordinated, impactful, and cost-efficient application of GIS and other location-based information to best serve the nation, with emphasis on the power of initiatives and public policy that connect across local, state, tribal, federal, academic, and private sector partners. The NSGIC also carries out a comprehensive survey of GIS and SDI developments at the state level every two years. The results of the most recent of these were published last year (NSGIC 2019).


Budhatkoki, N. J., B. Bruce and Z. Nedovic-Budic, 2008.Reconceptualising the role of the user of spatial data infrastructure, Geojournal, 72, 149-160.

Coleman, D, Y. Georgiadou, and J. Labonte, 2009. Volunteered geographic information: the nature and motivation of producers, International Journal of SDI Research, 4, 332-356

Commission of the European Communities, (CEC), 2007. Directive 2007/2/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 March 2007 establishing an Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE), Official Journal of the European Union, L108, 1-14.

Cooper, A.K. 2016. An exposition of the nature of volunteered geographical information and its suitability for integration into spatial data infrastructures, Phd dissertation, Universiteit van Pretoria.

Craglia. M, 2014. INSPIRE: towards a participatory Digital Earth, Geospatial World, 4, 7, 32-36.

Dias, L., A. Remke, T. Kauppinen, A. Degbelo, T. Foerster, C. Stasch, M. Rieke, B. Schaeffer, B. Baranski, A. Broring and A. Wytzisk, 2012. Future SDI – impulses from geomatics research and IT trends, International Journal of SDI Research, 7, 378-410.

Gevaert, C. M., 2018. Unmanned aerial vehicle mapping for settlement upgrading, PhD dissertation. University of Twente.

Goodchild, M. F., 2007 Citizens as sensors: the world of volunteered geography, Geojournal 69 (4) 211-221.

 Goodchild, M. F., and J.A. Glennon, 2010. Crowd sourcing geographic information for disaster response, Int Jour of Digital Earth 3, (3), 231-241.

National States Geographic Information Council, 2019. 2019 Geospatial maturity assessment,

One comment

  • Alan L Leidner

    I very much agree with Mr. Masser’s comments. With it likely that almost everyone will (or can eventually) have a smart phone that geolocates information inputs, any number of essential applications including public safety and health uses become possible without great cost. Mr. Masser also points to the importance of SDI for government. As someone who helped develop NYC’s SDI in the 1990’s I can say that the most important framework layers are those that give standardized spatial identify to all the other spatially enabled data that exists in a jurisdiction.. These layers include imagery (with x,y coordinates), elevation (z coordinate including below ground), street name and addresses, unique building identifiers, unique parcel identifiers. If a jurisdiction creates these base layers, integrates them, and makes them available to anyone and everyone, all the data created with them can be used in any combination needed to solve a problem or support an operation. NYC has used this concept to good advantage. Almost every one of the City’s 40 agencies use these framework layers to give spatial identify to their operational data creating thousands of layers citywide that can be used together and hundreds of applications. Moreover, many hundreds of these geo-datasets are available over the City’s public portal for use by private organizations and citizens. Moreover, we have documented how NYC’s SDI has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in property tax revenue, saves lives (9-1-1 system), and makes City operations more efficient and effective, thus justifying more investment into our “beyond SDI” efforts.

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