Home Articles Asia-Pacific Region and SDI activities

Asia-Pacific Region and SDI activities

Abbas Rajabifard


Abbas Rajabifard
Deputy Director and Research Fellow
Centre for SDI and Land Administration
The University of Melbourne, Australia
[email protected]

Co-authors
Ian P Williamson
Professor of Surveying and Land Information,
Centre for SDI and Land Administration,
The University of Malbourne, Austraila
[email protected]

This article aims to draw a picture of the status of SDI development at different political and administrative levels in Asia. The main focus would be on institutional arrangements, technological, social and economic dimensions which affect the SDI growth nationally and regionally in this region. To achieve this aim, the article starts by reviewing regional cooperation in this region and providing a brief description of the past and current status of spatial data and information in this region.

Asia and the Pacific region is the largest region in the world with a vast geographic area of land and water, some 60 per cent of the world’s population and includes 55 countries as defined by the United Nations. The countries span a wide part of the globe from Iran and Armenia in the west to French Polynesia in the east, from the Russian Federation and Japan in the north to New Zealand in the south.

This region is one of the first regions in the world that has started to develop Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) for its regional level and has a complex social and political environment, typified by competing and often conflicting priorities and motivations. Every case in this region is unique because of its national context, language and characteristics (such as size, population, political systems, social and economic priorities, and varied infrastructures and skills), the national, traditional and cultural attitudes, and the people who participate, develop and use SDIs. In this region, spatial data and information are traditionally collected and disseminated by a range of mandated national organisations according to a wide variety of national standards. A major difficulty in relation to these types of data and information is a lack of coordination.

This article aims to draw a picture of the status of SDI development at different political and administrative levels in this region. The main focus would be on institutional arrangements, technological, social and economic dimensions which affect the SDI growth nationally and regionally in this region.

Regional Cooperation in Asia and Pacific
The rapid and sustained development in Asia and the Pacific has created vast trade and investment opportunities, especially for the economies of its individual nations. One of the most significant developments in Asia and the Pacific economy has been the rapid growth of regional cooperation. Within a few years, a number of regional initiatives have been endorsed and various forms of cooperative ventures have been established.

The results of these developments can be seen in the formation of many cooperative organisations such as: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community (APCC), the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), as well as various innovative types of subregional cooperative ventures, such as the activities of Australian-ASEAN Economic Cooperation Programs (AAECP) at a country level. These regional organisations mostly work and cooperate with each other on different areas including development assistance; human resources development; economic development; science and technology transfer; political links; institutional linkages; and security issues.

The activities and functions under each of these areas were designed in some manner to give maximum return to individual parties of each cooperative organisation. Some of the regional interests that encourage different governments to cooperate with each other and to form different regional groups are: regional mapping, regional emergency management, regional security, regional access to health care resources, regional environmental monitoring and management, shared oceans surroundings, fishing, shipping and transport, agricultural and forestry management.

These regional interests are related to specific parts or whole areas of the region. Therefore, to achieve them, all the regional organisations need to access regional spatial data to identify regional spatial features and their characteristics to make informed decisions and to implement resulting regional initiatives. However, current research shows that in most cases all efforts by regional organisations face similar difficulties in accessing such datasets (Rajabifard and Williamson. 2002). There is currently a general lack of transparency in Asia and the Pacific region as to what (mainly national) data exist regarding the commercial conditions of their usage, scope and quality.

In this region, spatial data is traditionally collected and disseminated by a range of mandated national organisations according to a wide variety of national standards. Based on the results of the analysis of a technical questionnaire survey by authors in year 2000, there are large amounts of digital data with many common layers available at different scales in this region that could be useful for the creation of a regional dataset. But, a major difficulty in relation to accessing these data is a lack of coordination. National administrations do not systematically cooperate with their equivalents elsewhere. Due to this lack of coordination, different data structures, specifications and standards are used by member nations which does not facilitate data exchange. Although networking relationships exist between nations, based on individual arrangements and are not reflected in an operational coordination of activities.

The lack of availability and accessibility to the reliable datasets results in the duplication of effort to collect data, which exist, but is either unavailable or unknown to the current project. This is a waste of time and resources that developing nations can ill-afford. This situation is exacerbated when the national mapping and spatial data activities are the responsibility of a nation’s military organisation because there tends to be a perception that sharing geographic information will affect national security. Although with the global advances in information technology, this concept is redundant with the availability of remotely sensed data from satellites and changes in military technology, but still, is the case in this region.

It is difficult to serve the growing diversity of users with new technology when data dissemination is hampered by narrow security restrictions and ‘rent seeking’ by holders of data. One of the fundamental problems is the lack of awareness of the value of spatial data and information and a wider definition of security that can include issues other than military ones, such as the need and use of spatial data for economic, educational, cultural, social and political systems. This lack of awareness has resulted in the lack of availability and accessibility of spatial data to facilitate regional cooperation.

This is one of the issues which was highlighted and demonstrated by Rajabifard and Williamson (2001) in the pilot trial on regional administrative boundaries which has been completed for the United Nations-supported Permanent Committee on GIS Infrastructure for Asia and the Pacific (PCGIAP). In summary, a fundamental problem underlying data sharing and distribution is the belief that one gains power and influence from withholding information and controlling it. In fact, true power is held by those who distribute the information and whose information is used by senior political levels. Once this leap of faith is taken, as it has been in several countries, data sharing becomes remarkably easy. Therefore, absence of culture for sharing spatial data and standards in Asia and the Pacific constrains the transparency and the necessary knowledge for decision-making and delays the regional spatial data users in finding information for their needs.

The Need for SDI Development
In order to respond to the above mentioned situations, development of a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) can be an answer. SDI is an initiative intended to create an environment which enables a wide variety of users who require a jurisdictional coverage, to be able to find, access and retrieve the best available and consistent datasets in an easy and secure way. At a regional level for example, the roots for such an SDI are in the regional governments and their cooperation.

The concept of SDI can be defined as an integrated, multi-levelled hierarchy of interconnected SDIs based on partnerships at local, state/provincial, national, regional (multi-national) and global levels. This enables users to save resources, time and effort when trying to acquire new datasets by avoiding duplication of expenses associated with the generation and maintenance of data and their integration with other datasets.

With this in mind, every nation in this region undertakes to some extent the development of strategic national mapping and spatial data activities to meet their national planning and management needs. The accumulation of these activities over time has resulted in the identification of key linkages between institutional and technical aspects and occurring in a continuum of development strategies.

Absence of culture for sharing spatial data and standards in Asia and the Pacific constrains the transparency and the necessary knowledge for decision-making and delays the regional spatial data users in finding information for their needs.

Current communications between the various countries and regional bodies in Asia and the Pacific is very complex. For the purpose of sharing data, organisations and member nations (users) must develop one-on-one agreement with each and every other user within the region. However, as illustrated in Figure 1, having a functioning Regional SDI, as an example, can reduce this complexity of communication. The establishment of a Regional SDI will form a fundamental framework to exchange data across many countries in a region. This will also provide a clear picture to support and improve existing or even new bilateral and multilateral relations and structures.


Fig 1 Reduced complexity through Regional SDI
Further, the development of an SDI can provide the institutional framework and the technical basis to ensure the consistency and the content of datasets to meet jurisdictional needs in the context of sustainable development.

SDI Development at Regional Level
Through the efforts of the UNRCC-AP and following its 13th Conference in Beijing, May 1994, the national mapping agencies in Asia and the Pacific region formed the Permanent Committee on GIS Infrastructure for Asia and the Pacific (PCGIAP) in 1995 to develop a Regional SDI for Asia and the Pacific region. The aims of the PCGIAP are to maximise the economic, social and environmental benefits of geographic information in accordance with Agenda 21 by providing a forum for nations across the region to cooperate in the development of the Asia-Pacific Spatial Data Infrastructure (APSDI) and contribute to the development of the global infrastructure.

The PCGIAP operates under the purview of the UNRCC-AP, and submits its report and recommendations to this Conference. From an organisational perspective, there are three tiers in PCGIAP structure, consisting of a plenary body comprising all participating member nations, a middle tier including working groups and secretariat which facilitate and implement all decisions made by the top tier body which are empowered to make decisions on behalf of the PCGIAP as a whole on operational issues (Figure 2).


Fig 2 Different Tiers in PCGIAP Organisational Structure
Members of the PCGIAP are directorates of national survey and mapping organisations, or equivalent national agencies, of the 55 members. The Committee meets annually and reports every three years to the UNRCC-AP.

The PCGIAP is working towards the implementation of APSDI. The PCGIAP has developed a conceptual model for its Regional SDI initiative that comprises four core components – institutional framework, technical standards, fundamental datasets and access networks. According to this model, the APSDI is not a centralised database but a network of fundamental spatial databases maintained by custodians and linked through the adoption of consistent standards, policies and administrative principles.

Under the principles adopted by the PCGIAP, each member country is responsible for providing the component of the Asia Pacific SDI covering that country. That component may be an extract from their national spatial data infrastructure (National SDI), or a stand-alone product.

Current Status of APSDI Development
PCGIAP achieved some important steps toward the development of the APSDI since its establishment. For example the committee successfully implemented a regional precise geodesy network, defined a regional geodesy datum, developed and approved a policy on sharing fundamental data, developed guidelines on custodianship and in particular, the definition of APSDI. Also, projects are underway for the ultimate goal of APSDI development in the region, among which the Asia-Pacific Regional Geodetic Project is strengthening the regional geodetic network. Surveys among member nations on the status and development needs and on fundamental datasets have also been conducted. In addition, the PCGIAP has also endeavoured to facilitate capacity building amongst its members. Seminars on contemporary SDI topics, presented by local and international authorities, for the benefit of members and non-members, have been conducted during committee meetings.

Although these achievements are very important and provide a valuable contribution and will form the basis for the APSDI development, there are some other issues involved in the progress of APSDI which need to be mentioned. These issues include the low rate of participation in PCGIAP activities, the organisational structure of PCGIAP, designs of the work program and working groups, and availability of resources to pursue programs. Notwithstanding the endorsement of the policy of data sharing at the 15th UNRCC-AP in 2000 there is little evidence yet of significant data transfers within the PCGIAP (Masser et al. 2003).

Current rate of participation in PCGIAP activities, shows that after many years of effort the APSDI initiative still does not receive support from all member nations and regional organisations. In other words, despite all the interest and activities by the PCGIAP, the development of this Regional SDI initiative remains very much an innovative concept among members of this region. This lack of support stems from three key issues a) lack of awareness of the benefits of a Regional SDI, b) the incompatibility of the current conceptual model with the perceived needs of the member nations, and c) the lack of understanding of the complexity of the interacting social, economic, and political issues.

SDI Activities at National Level
With increasing frequency, countries throughout the world (including countries in Asia and the Pacific) are developing SDI to better manage and utilise their spatial data assets. This is mainly due to the fact that an SDI at the national level has stronger relationships as well as a more important role, in building the other levels of SDI (Rajabifard et al. 2003). The role of a National SDI in an SDI hierarchy (Figure 3) displays a particularity not present in the other levels of the SDI hierarchy. This particularity is that bottom levels of an SDI hierarchy, such as local and state, have no strong links to the upper levels of the hierarchy, like to the GSDI. So, the National SDI provides a crucial link between the lower and higher levels, ensuring ongoing alignment of standards and policies for spatial data sharing.


Fig 3 SDI Hierarchy and National SDI Particularity
On the other side, the stage of economic development of a specific country and awareness of the value of SDI initiatives has a major impact on the development of an SDI for the country. Based on the research by authors, currently about 20-30% of member nations are developing (or are having plan to develop) SDI for their jurisdictions. Some of these countries have little to show, and are at earlier stage of development, while others have already built up a considerable amount of experience in formulating and implementing national SDIs. In some countries, like Australia, there is a growing body of published materials describing different aspects of developing and implementing SDI, including future strategic plans.

Due to the economic situation of the individual member nations and the level of awareness of the value of SDIs in this region, different members have very different needs for an SDI development for their respective countries and participation in the Regional SDI initiative. As a result two broad groups of countries are considered, being developed and developing countries. The category of developing countries is then broken into another three sub-groups: first, countries in transition from developing to developed status; secondly, countries at an early stage of economic development and awareness; and lastly the Oceania/Pacific Island nations as illustrated in Figure 4. While each country has different development priorities, those in each group do share some similar priorities. A complication is that many countries do not fit easily into these categories, with some countries having aspects of all categories. But in general the stage of development overall of an individual country does significantly influence the choice of which SDI strategies and models are adopted.


Fig 4 Classification of Asia-Pacific Member Nations based on Economic and SDI Activities
Understanding these categories of countries are very important as the economic, social, institutional, legal and technical environment in developing countries is very different from that in developing countries. As such the promotion and diffusion of SDIs in developing countries may face different challenges with those in developed countries. The main limitations are a lack of appreciation of what SDI can and cannot do, lack of resources and trained personnel, inefficient bureaucratic processes, lack of data, and lack of infrastructure.

Along this line, as part of an ongoing research and analysis on national data clearinghouses by Crompvoets et al. (2003), it has been confirmed that many countries have spent considerable resources over the past few years debating optimal National SDIs and the development of national spatial data clearinghouse. In a systematic assessment of the developments of these national clearinghouses, they reported that the development in the number of implementations can be considered a worldwide success. However, the variety in numbers between the different regions is considerable. For example, in Europe and America, around 50% of the countries have established a national clearinghouse, whereas in Asia and the Pacific and Africa this is less than 20%. Also, of concern are the declining trends in use, management and content in many countries including countries in Asia and the Pacific region.

The development of an SDI initiative is a long-term process which require a long-term vision and strategy. One suggested strategy to speed up this process is taking short-term goals and demonstrating their results to the users and other interested people as soon as they reach completion.

One of the main reasons for these negative trends is the dissatisfaction of the spatial data community with the functional capability of current clearinghouses. Although this is also a reason in Asia and the Pacific, but it is not the main one. The main reason for these negative trends in this region is the cost of development and implementation of such initiatives. Based on an overall assessment, the average cost of a spatial data clearinghouse is around 1,500,000 a year (INSPIRE Architecture and Standards Working Group 2002). This money is spent in the management and coordination costs, GIS and Internet application development, training, hardware, network server, standardisation activities, legal environment, and metadata preparation.

In summary, based on current SDI activities and awareness, the development of National SDIs in Asia and the Pacific can be expected to be increase within current generation of SDIs. This is due to the fact that within the current generation-the second generation (Rajabifard et al. 2003) of the development of SDIs is relatively quick due to the concept gaining momentum and the existence of early prototypes, clarifications on many initial design issues, increased sharing and documentation of experiences to facilitate implementation and face the complexity of decision-support challenges.

Discussion and Future Direction
The development of an SDI initiative is a long-term process which require a long-term vision and strategy. One suggested strategy to speed up this process is taking short-term goals and demonstrating their results to the users and other interested people as soon as they reach completion. Also, the success of an SDI is not dependent on its legal or technical sophistication, but whether it provides an effective communication channel to all stakeholders and permits easy access to spatial data adequately, simply, quickly, securely and at low cost. However, if the resources are not available to keep the SDI up-to-date then there is little justification for its development. Therefore, funding and resources to secure the implementation of SDI is always an important issue.

This article has attempted to present an overall picture of the current status of SDI development in Asia and the Pacific region. As part of that and based on the economic situation, a classification of the Asia-Pacific countries was identified and presented. According to this classification, four general categories of countries be considered. It was argued that and understanding of these categories as well as the complexities within each is essential for any SDI development.

Further, based on the results and outcomes of research on regional fundamental datasets, the article has highlighted that there are large amounts of digital data with many common data layers that are available at different scales in the region and they could be useful for the creation and facilitation of the Regional SDI. However, the most anticipated political barriers regarding the establishment of a regional dataset include access to datasets for security reasons, lack of resources, national administrative boundaries as a data layer, and copyright issues.

Acknowledgments
The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the University of Melbourne, the Permanent Committee on GIS Infrastructure for Asia and the Pacific (PCGIAP), and the member of the Centre for Spatial Data Infrastructures and Land Administration at the Department of Geomatics, the University of Melbourne, in the preparation of this paper and the associated research. However, the views expressed in the paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of these groups.

References

  • Crompvoerts, J. Rajabifard, A., Bregt, A. and Williamson, I. P. (2003). Assessing the worldwide developments of national spatial data clearinghouses, Forthcoming, International Journal of GIS.
  • INSPIRE Architecture and Standards working group (2002). INSPIRE Architecture and Standards Position Paper, Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe, Commission of the European Communities. https://www.ec-gis.org/inspire/.
  • Masser, I., Borrero, S. and Holland, P. (2003). Regional SDIs, Chapter 4, In Williamson, I.P., Rajabifard, A. and M-E. F.Feeney (Eds). Developing Spatial Data Infrastructures – From concept to reality. Taylor and Francis, London.
  • PCGIAP (1998). A Spatial Data Infrastructure for the Asia and the Pacific Region, (PCGIAP Publication No. 1, Canberra).
  • Rajabifard, A. Feeney, M. Williamson, I.P. and Masser, I. (2003). National SDI Initiatives, Chapter 6, In Williamson, I.P., Rajabifard, A. and M-E. F.Feeney (Eds). Developing Spatial Data Infrastructures – From concept to reality. Taylor and Francis, London.
  • Rajabifard, A. and Williamson, I. P. (2002). Spatial Data Infrastructures: an initiative to facilitate spatial data sharing’, Forthcoming Book, Global Environmental Databases, Volume 2, International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ISPRS-WG IV/8), Chiba, Japan.
  • Rajabifard, A. and Williamson, I.P. (2001). Report on Regional Administrative Boundaries Pilot Project, Presented at the 7th Permanent Committee on GIS Infrastructure for Asia and the Pacific, Tsukuba, Japan. .
  • UNRCC-AP (1994). Report of the Thirteenth United Nations Regional Cartographic Conference for Asia-Pacific, E/CONF.87/3, Beijing, 9-18 May 1994.