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Governance: Riding on cloud to touch the grassroots

Cloud computing is an opportunity for the geospatial community to improve e-participation of citizen services and increase service delivery while driving people towards a sustainable e-society

The latest advancements in technology today are a boon for crafting effective governance systems, which is expected to transform the way governance reaches up to the grassroot level. A strong political will enables governments to go for major changes in existing policies, practices and perspectives, thereby helping it envisage exemplary systems.

GIS has established itself as a catalyst to any e-governance framework. The basic requirement for any government to effectively operate and disseminate information lies with spatial data infrastructures (SDIs). Gone are the days of analysing information from databases alone. Spatial databases provide another key element — location. The perspective of governments is always location-specific since the strategies and development plans are usually based on such details.

Fundamental benefits of SDIs as part of the ICT framework are varied and include effective ways of information and resource management, transformation in the way governments work, reaching out to grassroots through innovative citizen services, saving capital, operational and resource management costs, and supporting spatial and temporal analysis of environment, demographics and developmental aspects.

SDI-based applications
With SDIs, government agencies can considerably improve functionalities of many applications. The geoportal concept is a typical Web-based interface mechanism to make information accessible from SDIs. Geoportals can enable government agencies and businesses to reach out to citizens by offering spatial data, information services and tools to support analysis and decision making.

Geoportals also enable design of self-service portal applications such as City GIS with a number of functions to help citizens in their day-to-day life. City GIS Portals usually comprise of driving directions, public transport, finding locations, finding emergency services, schools and other points of interest. OneMap of Singapore and the Philippine Geoportal are typical examples. Integrated incident reporting portal is another useful application to enable citizens to report different types of incidents. Typically, multiple types of incidents can be brought into one single application so that citizens can have single interface to report any kind of incident with ease. Some of the citizen-centric reporting incidents can be related to emergency, security, public transport, public works, child labour etc. Every incident will have spatial reference, hence locating the incident on map always helps the respective agency to quickly respond to and address the incident. Mobile and tablet applications are the latest trends and they are very convenient to report incidents on the spot along with evidence, either by way of photographs or video clips.

SDI for business and private sector
Geospatial data also supports the private sector in its decision-making purposes. Most government agencies have an understanding with other agencies to leverage the geospatial database prepared by the agencies, where spatial data and geospatial technologies are core for their operations. The private sector cannot invest heavily on the spatial database and may like to consume or subscribe data prepared by other government or private agencies at reasonable cost.

The private sector has many applications to exploit the rich information available with SDIs. Some of the key applications areas include proximity analysis and location analytics; analysis of business locations, competition, supply and demand; market planning and campaigns; territory design for sales/distribution channels; demographic analysis and customer segmentation and tracking and tracing of mobile resources/assets.

Private companies from various business lines such as supply chain, insurance, merchandise, real estate etc. can leverage the geospatial data in their applications. The real justification for SDI investments can be achieved by offering data services to a wide audience to exploit the data usage comprehensively. Healthy exploitation of the data offered leads to self-sufficiency and balance at both ends.

Technology trends and solutions
The world is evolving with sweeping improvements in technologies connected with the Internet, computing, mobility and storage aspects. Technology and research firm Gartner has consistently named cloud computing in the top 10 strategic technology trends for the last three years. Cloud computing involves server-based applications that expose services called software-as-a-service (SaaS) that interact with a variety of clients over the Web or on a private network. Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is being used for enterprise applications, and combined with cloud hosting, can be an ideal platform to deploy SDI kind of applications.

The advantage of the powerful GIS server software available in the industry today, combined with rich features available in Web 2.0 and complying with open geospatial standards, gives a great opportunity to improve e-participation of citizen services, increase service delivery, offer feedback mechanism and drive people towards sustainable e-society. Geospatial applications are evolving towards a SaaS model to reach out to the public. The nature of geospatial applications is such that they usually comprise a set of software tools to perform analysis to obtain required spatial data. Based on this combined proposition, a new term called ”GIS-as-a-Service (GaaS)” can be defined to make it proprietary for the geospatial community.

Cloud computing helps government agencies to downsize their IT departments since the cloud platform providers offer infrastructure and also resources for operational maintenance of IT applications.

Cloud platforms and providers worldwide
Leading the pace among the cloud infrastructure providers worldwide are Amazon and Microsoft. Other players such as IBM, Citrix, Verizon, Google, Yahoo and VMware have also come up with their cloud offerings. Esri provides ready-to-use ArcGIS Server AMIs (Amazon Machine Images) to quickly set up GIS applications on affordable servers that will run in the Amazon Cloud. Amazon EC2 Jumpstart package provides installation, configuration support and technology transfer on a number of standard topics for setting up the Esri ArcGIS Server on Amazon”s cloud platform.

Microsoft’s cloud offering is Windows Azure, classified as “public cloud” covering both Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). SQL Azure is an SaaS from Windows Azure to offer database instances to the cloud users.

GIS databases are classified at different levels, depending upon their access privileges to users, such as private, semi-private and public. There are combinations of databases that can be implemented in multi-tenant architecture for public data and instance-per-organisation architecture for classified applications (semi-private). Further fine-tuning is required for private instances. Esri has been offering SaaS in a web-centric model to expose maps and geographic information through open, webaccessible interfaces, primarily REST and JSON, but also SOAP and some other types.

The Web-centric architecture of Esri can be termed as truly flexible as it supports other capabilities that work both on-premises in private clouds as well as off-premises in hosted ones. The Singapore Land Authority has creatively implemented the same model by hosting Onemap at their on-premises private cloud, and cloud computing was leveraged for additional computing capacity to extend to a larger user base. This kind of hybrid hosting model is appropriate for SDIs since the security of the data need not be compromised by setting up database at private cloud.

Ideal choice for governments
Cloud computing is an opportunity for the geospatial community to creatively host applications in private, public cloud platforms and/or hybrid platform models. The hybrid platform models are an ideal proposition for SDIs, and geoportal applications in the interest of security for classified database instances also combine the benefits of both platforms. Citizen-centric self-service map portals and geo-mashup applications are the best ways to reach out to the public at large. The private sector should be encouraged to consume map services hosted on private and public clouds for their business applications. It helps in sustenance of the SDI programmes in terms of its maintenance costs and planning subsequent advancements.

High capital expenditure required for building massive infrastructure for SDIs is sometimes an entry barrier and the availability of skilled IT resources to manage the critical applications may be another concern for local government agencies. Cloud computing is an ideal choice for local governments to offer citizen-centric map portals and geo-mashup applications with the help of hybrid models. The on-site infrastructure of state/federal governments, in combination with computing capacity from cloud platform, together can be used to offer mashup applications.