Beyond SDI – Serena Coetzee (University of Pretoria)

The paradox of a good infrastructure is that once it works, it becomes invisible to the user. Do you ever think about the infrastructure behind the water running out of a tap in your house or the distribution network that makes it possible to plug the charger of your mobile phone into a wall socket? Probably not, because in most developed countries, those infrastructures are well maintained and provide the facilities and services required for the functioning of society.

Are SDIs invisible to users? Much has been achieved in the last few decades to make SDIs invisible. Large parts of the general public now use geospatial data every day, without thinking where the data came from, how it was processed, cleaned or visualized. Standards have contributed to making SDIs invisible, for example, by something as simple as agreeing on the order of the latitude and longitude values in coordinates, specified in ISO 6709. Without this standard, our current daily use of geospatial data would malfunction. More complex standards make it possible to access geospatial data on any server anywhere in the world; they facilitate the integration of geospatial data from different sources; and they provide good practice guidelines for maintaining quality data. Making use of mainstream IT technologies and specifications has further contributed to the invisibility of SDIs, because we can develop and use applications based on geospatial data in the same way as any other application.

Yet, there are still challenges that make SDIs very visible. Where SDIs fail, it is seldom (never?) because of technology. While ever increasing volumes of geospatial data are collected, processed and manipulated by ever changing and improving technologies, behind all of this, humans sign institutional agreements, decide about budgets, and design and implement organizational processes aimed at making geospatial information available, accessible and usable. Firstly, the people responsible for SDIs must understand and appreciate the value of geospatial data, and they must want an SDI. Sounds simple, but this is (still) not always the case. Secondly, they need to have an interdisciplinary mix of knowledge and skills focused not only on the geographic aspects of data, but also on the management of data and technologies generally. To become truly invisible, the people behind an SDI need to be equipped with knowledge and skills that go well beyond understanding geospatial information. 

Serena Coetzee (GPr GISc 1245)
University of Pretoria
Professor and Head of Department Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology
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