Geospatial ecosystem: Growth is the best policy

Geospatial ecosystem: Growth is the best policy


Prof Ian Dowman
Editor – Europe
[email protected]

Geospatial information and technology have great potential to be a public commodity and a panacea to the larger challenges facing global economic and social well-being. It therefore becomes imperative to have enabling, market –oriented policy frameworks in place to give impetus to the geospatial ecosystem. Here’s a look at some government policies across the world and their impact on the utility of geospatial technology.

It is widely recognised that geospatial data has a very important role to play in governmental and commercial activities today. But how does geospatial data fit into a commercial model? A great deal of geospatial data has been collected by governments using taxpayers' money. Users therefore do not think it fair that they should pay a second time to buy data. Much of the high resolution satellite data has been collected with subsidies from governments, through defence contracts or by government subsidies to the space industry designed to boost development of high technology. Then there are government restrictions on data sales and regional directives that regulate the structure and use of geospatial data. All these factors lead to a complicated market for geospatial data. This article will try to unravel some of these complications and suggest ways forward.

Figure 1: Factors affecting the use of geospatial data in a country

An appropriate starting point to understand these issues is to look at the history of geospatial data in modern times. In 1950, geospatial data was synonymous with paper map. Maps were compiled and updated using ground and aerial surveying. Broadly speaking, maps at scales of 1:5000 and smaller were made and updated by national mapping organisations (NMOs), while maps of larger scales were created for specific purposes, often engineering projects, by commercial companies. In addition, cadastral plans for recording land ownership were collected by land registry offices, which in some cases would be the same organisation responsible for topographic mapping. NMOs provided their maps to the government, often for defence purposes and sold them to the public. The link between civilian mapping and military mapping led to some restrictions on civilian use of maps. Even today, large scale maps and aerial photographs are not available to the public in many countries. As the resolution of images increased, so did the restriction on their use in certain countries.

With the introduction of computers and digitisation of data, the picture changed rapidly. Not only did existing maps become available in digital form, data was collected digitally and the importance of location in information analysis gained significance. Today, we have reached a situation where location information is both easily available, through GNSS in mobile communication devices, and is highly desirable for many services. But the restrictions, both historic and those created due to commercial and defence interests, and by the need to transfer data easily, multiplied.

A further aspect of this equation is that the production of geospatial data tends to be technology led. One reason for the widespread public interest in location is because of its ability to provide positional information. GNSS provides position. Microchip technology provides the means to receive the data in a car or a mobile device, so the public wants to use this new resource. While this augurs well for the sale of satellite navigation devices and mobile phones, if people do not find benefits of this resource, they do not follow up and purchase updated information. The industry still has to find the 'killer app' for the public at large.

Certain countries have adopted the technology more quickly than others. The legislative approach of governments of these countries in bringing market-oriented policies and enabling the users to capitalise on such a versatile technology is the major reason for the growth. Geospatial technology and information has great potential to be a public commodity and a panacea to the larger challenges facing global economic and social well-being. However, this requires the right policy framework, such as the promotion of other technologies including telecommunication, broadband and the internet, to unlock its potential. It therefore becomes imperative to look at the government policies and how they aid or hamper the growth of uptake of geospatial technology. Figure 1 summarises the current situation.

Let us first establish the difference between price, cost and value. The price of a commodity is the amount the buyer spends to purchase it, cost is the amount spent to produce it and value is what the buyer believes the product or service is worth to them. Clearly, price, cost and value are not the same and it would be fair to say that the price which a government puts on anything is unlikely to be related to its cost. A buyer is interested only in the price and value. In the case of, say, a LiDAR survey of an urban area carried out by a commercial company, the price will be the cost of the survey plus a profit for the company. The buyer decides whether this is good value. The profit to the company will be less if there is strong competition in bidding for the work. The price of a high resolution satellite image though is likely to be much less than the real cost of producing it. This is because the cost of developing and building the satellite may not be factored in as it has been covered by the government and the government may have a standing order for the data which effectively covers the cost, leaving the general public to only pay a marginal cost. A buyer would not be able to afford the image if the total cost was included. The market therefore is distorted. This is because the high resolution satellite remote sensing industry is primarily driven by defence and intelligence agencies. Most of these agencies have invested to support the birth of commercial satellite companies. For instance, private companies GeoEye and Astrium have been funded by their respective governments. However, DigitalGlobe, which started as a bonafide private company without any funding from the government, ended up with defence as its prime market. These companies are controlled by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) to an extent that it provides indirect leadership and direction.

There is a strong argument that data produced with public money, i.e. by an NMO, should be free. The opposing argument however is that keeping the data up-to-date and adding value comes at a certain cost which should be borne by the customer. The introduction of new technologies, such as open source or the cloud, too would involve additional cost. In many current NMO business models, the industry has a big role to play. Private companies suffer if NMOs have a monopoly on sales of this data. Producers of value-added products would be at a competitive disadvantage in absence of clear policies or uniform practices to guide them on access to and reuse of public sector information. Some NMOs have sought to overcome this issue by establishing partnerships with the industry. Ordnance Survey in UK, for example, has over 200 partnerships. The businesses range from global giants to single entrepreneurs, but all use location data to create business opportunities. Business models of NMOs vary enormously: in Europe for example, cost recovery amongst NMOs varies from 0 to 100%.

In the United States, public private partnerships (PPP) are widely used and offer significant cost benefits. Kumar Navulur, Director Next Gen Products, DigitalGlobe informs that the company has such a partnership. He further adds that the private industry designs, builds and launches the satellite and the government uses mechanisms such as NextView and EnhancedView contracts to supplement and complement their imagery needs.

Electronic governance (e-governance) refers to the use of information technology and the internet to improve the effectiveness of communication within government and between government and citizens. In the geospatial arena, this implies a spatial data infrastructure (SDI) to facilitate the exchange and use of geospatial data. A major advantage of a government-wide SDI is that it makes users aware of the power of location and can therefore increase the need for geospatial data. Heads of NMOs in Europe observe that a major benefit of INSPIRE is the increased collaboration between government departments and agencies and raised awareness amongst politicians in general about the importance of geospatial data. Indonesia has a National SDI Development project which links not only government departments but also the private sector and local governments, with participation from more than 500 nodal agencies. The government departments include the national surveying agency BIG (formerly BAKOSURTANAL), National Land Agency, National Aeronautics and Aerospace Institute and the Ministries of Forestry, Public Works, Transport, Agriculture, Marine and Fisheries.

Absence of an SDI would lead to lack of awareness about the importance of geospatial data, implying that politicians are less likely to put resources into the acquisition and management of spatial data.

The 12th GSDI Conference in Singapore in 2010 witnessed discussions on SDIs and on the limitations to their development. Table 1 summarises some of the constraints in establishing SDIs.

Many of these issues can be resolved with simple rules to control access to the information as required by local laws and policies. The cultural issues need to be dealt with through education. Users and politicians too need to be educated and be demonstrated that in a networked environment, everyone's data quality tends to improve if there are mutual internal feedbacks. According to Abbas Rajabifard, President, GSDI Society, developing a successful SDI depends as much upon issues such as political support, clarifying the business objectives of the SDI, sustaining a culture of sharing, maintaining reliable financial support and enlisting the cooperation of all members of the community, as upon technical issues relating to spatial data access, networking and standards. Therefore, developing a successful SDI within a jurisdictional level must be seen as a socio-technical, rather than a purely technical exercise. Clare Hadley, INSPIRE Delivery and UK Location Programme Alignment Manager, Ordnance Survey acknowledges that having a legal requirement to implement INSPIRE is a strong lever to achieving the data and service interoperability which the geospatial community has long wanted and which in the UK is encapsulated in the UK Location Strategy.

NMOs are regulated by governments and as shown earlier, their operations are constrained by the government. There are also other legislative constraints. Privacy is one such constraint and the use of maps and images may be restricted in some countries, as Google has found. Both the free availability of satellite images and Street View images on the internet have been contested in courts in several countries but Google has a policy of protecting individual’s privacy where people are concerned. These constraints do not seriously affect the use of the data however. There are also privacy issues in the use of cadastral data. In some countries, information on properties is available on the internet while in others, the same information is considered as a breach of privacy laws.

Governments often have a policy to support industry and private commerce in their country. Examples of this are high technology activities such as telecommunication and energy generation and transmission. These technologies, once established, are available to society at large to enable citizens and businesses to work efficiently. The government has a responsibility to provide essential services to its citizens and governments want to do this as efficiently as possible and at a minimum cost. For example, in-car vehicle navigation for emergency services enables ambulances and fire engines to get to where they are needed as quickly as possible. Greater accuracy in GNSS, brought about by augmentation systems like European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS), reduces errors and benefits society. Having recognised the need for GNSS, governments look for means to recover some of the cost and road use taxation becomes one such option. Similar technology can be used by insurance companies to tailor car insurance prices to vehicle usage. Governments also need to be prepared for disasters, implying requirement of high technology communications and access to satellite data for emergency response centres. The Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) is a national agency of the Government of India. It provides ocean information and advisory services to the society, industry, government and scientific community through sustained ocean observation and constant improvements through systematic and focussed research. It also houses the Indian Tsunami Early Warning Centre. Co-location of these services not only provides an essential service but also offers benefits including weather forecasts, sea surface state and potential fishing zones which benefit society in general as well as fishermen.

Thus we have a situation where the government sets up an infrastructure to provide services to society, which is available for commercial use, but what is the pricing model?


The influences at the national level, discussed above, can be extrapolated to both regional and international levels. A prime example of this is the European Union (EU). The European Commission has an action plan for growth in Europe, known as Digital Agenda for Europe, to make the best use of information and communication technology (ICT) to speed up economic recovery and lay the foundations for a sustainable digital future. Although not specifically targeted at geospatial data, this is required for infrastructure development. This can benefit the geospatial arena as the INSPIRE directive, for instance, requires the establishment of an infrastructure for spatial information and the Directive on Public Access to Environmental Information obliges public authorities to provide timely access to environmental information. Galileo is another initiative by the EU which will provide location data to government, businesses and individuals. During the development of Galileo, it became very difficult to find a business model for it and in the end, the EU was left to fund the system. The benefits of Galileo will be considerable but the price of data will be set by the EU, not by commercial considerations. Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) is another EU activity which produces geospatial data, specifically as a service to society. Future funding and the policy for access to the data are uncertain at the present. EU policies also feed down to national and regional levels. Germany and The Netherlands, for example, have a mandate for local authorities to provide information online to citizens.

There are other influences on government which are not mandatory. International organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) work to establish international frameworks which will make the use of geospatial data more efficient and in particular, benefit the society. The UN Regional Cartographic Conferences have brought together NMOs and other agencies and societies to encourage exchange of information and collaboration. Recently, the High Level Forum on UN Global Geospatial Information Management (GGIM) has been set up to coordinate use of geospatial information among various nations. GEO does the same for earth observation data. These bodies influence the government but action is only on a best effort basis. In order to justify participation in these initiatives, governments need to either demonstrate some returns to their citizens or these activities should contribute towards meeting policy objectives. José Achache, Director, GEO Secretariat says: 'I think there is only one way to create awareness and that is to demonstrate what you can do. So we are really focussing on developing and demonstrating capabilities rather than selling and over-selling space and saying we can do this and we can do that.' He cites the case of monitoring of forests which started with six participants but others quickly joined in when they became aware of the potential of the technique. On the other hand, Geoff Sawyer, Secretary General, European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) observes that the role of GEO is to co-ordinate governmental interests and that governments have a strong stake in earth observation. He also adds that companies working in commercial markets do not see a lot of contacts or activities from public sector committees and so do not play a strong role in GEO.

A recent development has been crowdsourcing, or volunteered geographic information (VGI). The best known example is OpenStreetMap, where volunteers provide geospatial information which can be accessed by anybody, free of charge. It has its advantages and disadvantages, but what is certain is that it will affect the market by providing free data which will compete with NMO products. At present, there are no known instances of any legislation related to the use of VGI but DJ Coleman and colleagues argue that legislation is necessary 'to recognise to account for and balance the rights of both the producing community and the mapping organisations.'

We have demonstrated that the geospatial market is complicated and not subject to the commercial imperative of supply and demand. In many areas, the role of the government is crucial both in promoting the use of geospatial data and in being the main buyer of the data. We have seen that INSPIRE in Europe has increased collaboration between government departments and agencies and raised awareness amongst politicians in general about the importance of geospatial data. In regions such as Africa, there is a crucial need to raise awareness amongst politicians so that more resources can be put into spatial data infrastructure. A major challenge is how to develop the market. 80% revenues of the main companies come from defence, 15% from civil government and a mere 5% from commercial consumers. This ratio of income source does not encourage development of the commercial market and there is also a great risk in being dependent on a single source of income.

The problem lies in treating data as a commodity and not as a service. Innovations, such as treating data as a service, can reduce production costs and at the same time enhance sales because then the price can be set to the volume of data used or some other such measure. Also it reduces the cost of holding data as far as the user is concerned. The problem in such a scenario is that the companies are dependent on government support and a change in policy could mean the end of the company.

A further problem is the supply of lower resolution data because there is only a small market for such data. The need for lower resolution satellites with better re-visit is essential for applications such as agriculture. Data for environmental monitoring is not commercial, but is still essential in instances like climate studies and forest monitoring. We have seen the long process in the US to finance a follow up on Landsat, demonstrating that satellites for this type of data can only be financed by government. RapidEye and DMCii appear to be successful in this market, but it is still early days for these companies.

Way forward
It is clear that government is the key player in the market for geospatial data. It is only in customised surveys for specific projects that a free market operates and even then, the government generated data may be used. However, there is no comprehensive information on which model is the most efficient and even if such information did exist, one model would not fit all, taking into account historical influences and the current state of development. There is a need for more information on the models used by NMOs and analysis on how these can be transferred to other organisations. There is also a need to expand the commercial market for satellite imagery. This can be achieved partly by educating politicians about developing infrastructure using geospatial data, but also enhancing the role of commercial operating companies.