Prof. Arup Dasgupta
While going through the articles on SDI in this issue I was struck by the immense contribution of two entities that have shaped SDI. Max Craglia of the European Commission’s INSPIRE initiative hit it bang on when he termed SDI as the child of the Internet. Indeed, global access to data would not have been possible without it. The second is the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), whose championing of open data systems and adoption of Internet capabilities through its Web Services Standards to enable data discovery, binding and operations has introduced a quiet revolution which helped make SDI a reality. Both entities share many common traits like openness; both are driven by volunteers; both rely on consensus and both choose to follow a golden mean eschewing controversy as far as possible.
Openness is a virtue that all SDIs should embrace with respect to data. Many have held that data for public good must be free of cost and easily available. Government-collected data should be available at the cost of media because the cost of collection has already been paid for by the citizens. Derek Clarke of NGI, South Africa, opines that pricing data for achieving financial independence is possibly the worst move an SDI can make as it will indirectly deny access to those who need it but cannot afford it. In a hard hitting article in Sensors and Systems, Bruce Joffe of GIS Consultants has put forward the idea that democracy depends upon access by the public to government geodata. Fair property taxation, consistent zoning and rational property insurance rates are “the types of questions concerned citizens may ask, both in their own interest, and in the interest of maintaining a responsive and equitable democracy”. Those countries that seek to restrict data access in the name of security need to heed this reasoning because open government that embraces transparency in decision making is the hallmark of democracy.
Involvement of citizens in SDI is not only as seekers of information but also as providers of information. The use of volunteered geospatial information from neogeographers and others must be encouraged and used as a valid data source for SDIs. There must be more Google Mapathon type of efforts. When it comes to planning development decisions, the views of the stakeholders must be included, and this necessarily comes from the bottom of the pyramid and not the top. Citizen involvement and transparent government can become more than buzzwords if the SDIs truly begin to serve citizens.
Another buzz acronym is PPP. Governments mouth this as they involve industry in realising SDI, though in reality it is nothing more than the age-old tendering model. Undoubtedly, SDI efforts by governments are lucrative business opportunities for the geospatial industry but the real money is in serving the citizens, the bottom of the pyramid, by creating applications that co-create a personalised experience for each citizen customer. There are thousands of government departments but there are billions of potential citizen-customers. That will be the real Private Public Partnership.