INSPIRE: Towards a Participatory Digital Earth

INSPIRE: Towards a Participatory Digital Earth


An infrastructure built on those of 28 different countries in 24 languages by a truly democratic process, INSPIRE is a role model not only in relation to the developments of SDI but more generally to the formulation of public policy at the European level. Find out how INSPIRE is facilitating consensus-based policy and is developing and maintaining a network of stakeholders. By Max Craglia

For people who are not so familiar with the concept of an SDI, it is easier to think of it as an extension of a desk-top GIS. Whilst in a ‘normal’ GIS, most of the data we use for analysis is our own, or collected by the agency we work for, an SDI is an Internet-based platform to make it easier for us to search and find data that may be relevant for our work and that may be collected, stored or published by other organisations, and often other countries. For this reason, SDIs are often termed as children of the Internet, without which they would not exist.

SDIs are the response to an increased recognition that the environmental and social phenomena we are called to understand and govern are very complex, and that no single organisation has the know-how and the data to do the job alone. Hence, we need to share knowledge and data across multiple organisations in both public and private sectors, and SDIs support this effort.

INSPIRE: Why and how?
INSPIRE is a legal act (Directive 2007/2/EC) of the Council and the European Parliament setting up an Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe based on infrastructures for spatial information established and operated by the 28 sovereign Member States of the European Union. All the spatial data that is part of INSPIRE comes via the organisations responsible in the Member States and this EU-wide SDI is developed in a decentralised way, building on the SDIs and related activities established and maintained by the Member States.

The prime purpose of INSPIRE is to support environmental policy, and overcome barriers affecting the availability and accessibility of relevant data. These barriers include: inconsistencies in spatial data collection; lack or incomplete documentation of available spatial data; lack of compatibility among spatial datasets that cannot, therefore, be combined with others; incompatible SDI initiatives in the Member States that often function only in isolation; cultural, institutional, financial and legal barriers preventing or delaying the sharing of existing spatial data.

The key elements of the INSPIRE Directive to overcome these barriers include:

  • Metadata to describe existing information resources so that they can be more easily found and accessed;
  • Harmonisation of key spatial data themes needed to support environmental policies in the Union;
  • Agreements on network services and technologies to allow discovery, view, download of information resources, and access to related services;
  • Policy agreements on sharing and access, including licensing and charging;
  • Coordination and monitoring mechanisms.

INSPIRE addresses 34 key spatial data themes organised in three groups (or Annexes to the Directive) reflecting different levels of harmonisation expected, and a staged phasing (see Table 1 on Page 34).

Legal framework
The legal framework of INSPIRE has two main levels. At the first, there is the INSPIRE Directive itself, which sets the objectives to be achieved and asks the Member States to pass their own national legislation establishing their SDIs. This mechanism of European as well as a national legislation allows each country to define its own way to achieve the objective agreed taking into account its own institutional characteristics and history of development. As an example, Germany does not have a single SDI but a coordinated framework among 17 SDIs, one for each of its states (Länder), and one at the federal level (which also means that 17 different legal acts had to be passed to implement INSPIRE). The INSPIRE Directive also requires the establishment of an EU geoportal operated by the European Commission to which the infrastructures of the Member States have to connect (https://inspire-geoportal.

The challenge of having 28 different ‘flavours’ of INSPIRE is that making the system work is undoubtedly more difficult. For this reason, the Directive envisages a second level of legislation, more stringent because it has to be implemented as is and does not require follow-up national legislation. Therefore, INSPIRE envisages technical implementation of rules in the form of regulations for metadata, harmonisation of spatial data and services, network services, data and service-sharing policies, and monitoring and reporting indicators to evaluate the extent of the Directive’s implementation and to assess its impact. Each of these regulations needs the approval of the Member States and of the European Parliament. By December 2013, almost all the regulations were approved. The only missing one, expected in spring 2014, refers to the technical specification for the harmonisation of spatial data services.

INSPIRE has some characteristics that make it particularly challenging. The most obvious is that it is an infrastructure built on those of 28 different countries in 24 languages. The requirements for multi—lingual services and interoperability among very different information systems and professional and cultural practices are, therefore, very demanding.

For example, existing standards have to be tested in real distributed and multi—lingual settings. In the best scenario all works well, but for a European-wide implementation, there is a need to translate the standards and related guidelines into the relevant languages (ISO, OGC and other standards are typically in English only). In other instances, testing has demonstrated that the standards are not mature enough, or leave too much room for different interpretations, and thus require further definition or individual bridges to make different system interoperate. This can be seen with tests on distributed queries in catalogues all using the same specifications (OGC CS-W 2.0) that identified a number of shortcomings, that required the development of an adaptor for each catalogue, which in a Europe-wide system with thousands of catalogues, would obviously not scale. These shortcomings have been put forward to the OGC for consideration. In harder cases still, there are no standards available, and therefore, they have to be created. This applies, for example, to ‘invoke’ services that are needed for service chaining and to the specifications required for the interoperability of spatial datasets and services, which is a central feature of INSPIRE.

To understand the context, it is worth reminding that each country in Europe has its own heritage and traditions, which also include different ways and methods for collecting environmental and geographic data, different methods on how to analyse them, and also visualise them, including different coordinate reference systems (sometimes more than one in each country), projections, and vertical reference systems. These different traditions mean that it is not enough for an SDI in Europe to help users find and access data, it is also necessary to understand the meaning of what we are accessing to make appropriate use of it. This means, in turn, we need to develop not only translation tools to help overcome the “natural” language barriers, but also agreed reference frameworks, classification systems and ontologies, data models, and schemas for each of the data themes shown in Table 1, against which the national data can be transformed or mapped. This is necessary because it is not possible to ask the Member States and their national and local organisations to re-engineer all their databases. Thus, the approach adopted is to develop agreed European models and systems of transformation (on-the-fly or batch) so that the level of interoperability necessary for key European applications can be achieved. The approach sounds simple but putting it into practice is very complex, as it required already three years of work to develop an agreed methodology (the Generic Conceptual Model) and tools, mobilise hundreds of experts in different domains, and deliver and test the specifications for all the data themes shown in Table 1.

Organisational model
The organisational model put in place to develop INSPIRE is one of its interesting features, drawing significant attention from outside Europe. It is a huge exercise in public participation, the like of which is most unusual in policy making, at least in Europe. From the outset, it was recognised that for INSPIRE to overcome barriers to data access and be successful, it was necessary for the legislators, implementers, and practitioners in the Member States to come together and agree on a shared understanding of the problem, and of possible solutions. Therefore, an expert group with official representatives of all the Member States was established at the beginning of the process in 2001, together with working groups of experts in the fields of environmental policy and geographic information to formulate options and forge consensus. The INSPIRE proposal was subject to an extended impact assessment to identify potential costs and benefits, before opening for public consultation. The revised proposal was then debated by the Council and European Parliament over a three-year period before final adoption in 2007. This process in itself is a good example in democracy, but the more interesting aspect is the way in which interested stakeholders are continuing to participate in all the ongoing activities required to develop the INSPIRE Implementing Rules (i.e. the follow-up legal acts and detailed technical guidance documents).

To organise this process, two mechanisms have been put in place: the first is to engage the organisations at the European national and sub-national level that already have a formal legal mandate for the coordination, production or use of geographic and environmental information (the so called Legally Mandated Organisations or LMOs). The second mechanism aims to facilitate the self-organisation of stakeholders, including spatial data providers and users from both the public and private sectors, in spatial data interest communities (SDICs) by region, societal sector, and thematic issue. These SDICs identify and describe user requirements, provide expertise to INSPIRE Drafting Teams, participate in the review process of the draft implementing rules, develop, operate and evaluate the implementation pilots, and develop initiatives for guidance, awareness raising, and training in relation to the INSPIRE implementation.

There was an open call in March 11, 2005 for the registration of interest by SDICs and LMOs, who were also asked to put forward expert and reference material to support the preparation of the Implementing Rules. There was a second call in 2009 to support the development of Annex II and III specifications, and an Internet Forum has also been set up to help Member States share experiences and tools. As a result, hundreds of organisations and experts throughout Europe have participated in the development and testing of the technical specifications of INSPIRE which makes the specifications more robust from a technical point of view and more acceptable from an organisational/political point of view.

The drafting teams have a challenging task in collecting and summarising reference material, seeking common denominators and reference models, and developing recommendations which satisfy user requirements without imposing an undue burden on those organisations that have day-to-day responsibility for data collection and management across Europe. Their recommendations are then submitted for review to all the registered SDICs and LMOs and to the representatives of the Member States. After revision and checking, the draft implementing rule goes thorough the final round of the democratic process before becoming a new legal act. This involves qualified majority voting by the representatives of the Member States and the scrutiny of the European Parliament.

The complexity of this participatory approach is certainly innovative, not only in relation to the developments of SDIs but also more generally to the formulation of public policy at the European level. The outcome produces both consensus- based policy and the development, and maintenance of a network of stakeholders that make it possible to implement more effectively this distributed European SDI.

The challenges
Although a great deal of work has taken place with the support of many stakeholders, there are several organisational and technical challenges (and opportunities) that need to be addressed. Organisational: The most crucial challenge was to maintain the momentum and the high level of commitment of all the stakeholders and the experts contributing to the development of the Implementing Rules. This requires a notable amount of resources (time, money, expertise, commitment) to ensure that stakeholders feel ownership of the process, which then becomes a prerequisite for more effective implementation.

Another facet is the organisational challenges in the Member States to implement INSPIRE. INSPIRE Directive asks Member States to establish and maintain their SDIs, nominate an organisation as a contact point with the Commission, and set up appropriate coordinating mechanisms. In many countries, SDIs already exist at national or sub-national levels. So the effort is more focused on agreeing division of responsibility than in setting up new structures. In other countries, INSPIRE offers an opportunity for organisations that have been leading SDI developments for years to get their just recognition, and acquire new status and legitimacy. In others still, the opportunities for some organisations are perceived as threats by others. INSPIRE, like anything changing the status quo, has therefore become the spark for settling scores among stakeholders.

The current difficult financial climate makes it more challenging to invest in new infrastructures and ways of working. Hence, one of the challenges in most countries is to leverage resources available from different sources (European, national, international), and/or ensure strong synergy between the investment required by INSPIRE and those committed in related projects, for example in the framework of e-government.

Underpinning this organisational challenge, there are the key issue of awareness, education and training. Although the Joint Research Commission of the European Commission has involved thousands of people in the development of INSPIRE, and most national-level organisations in the Member States are aware of this initiative, few people belonging to these organisations are actively participating, and the level of awareness of INSPIRE and its future impacts may be lost to other parts of the same organisation. Moreover, many public sector administrations at the sub-national level still have limited or no knowledge of INSPIRE. Last but not the least, the complexity of the technical documentation being produced at the present time is posing to be a limiting factor as very few people can understand or use, requiring education and training. However, there is not enough staff, nor training material designed and translated across Europe so that everybody implements exactly the same specs.

Technical: The main challenge here is to develop and maintain an infrastructure that works, and that delivers added value. As indicated earlier, the suite of international standards and specifications available is sometimes not mature enough to deliver, or subject to different interpretations, changes, and inconsistencies. INSPIRE took the view that it was not feasible for it to include all the detailed specifications down to rules for encoding into a legal act, as any change in standards, technologies, or good practice would then require lengthy procedures to amend the legislation. As a result, the INSPIRE Implementing Rules are short and only say what functionalities are required, leaving the detailed implementation to non-binding Guidelines documents. This of course has its drawbacks as one cannot guarantee that everyone will use the Guidelines and that interoperability will be achieved immediately.

A second challenge is to facilitate the transition from an SDI perspective that only addresses relatively few technical experts towards a spatial information infrastructure, which is a service providing information products and analyses that are of wider use to non-experts. This requires turning many of the functionalities and analytical processes encoded in GIS software and usable by few trained geospatial professionals, into geo-processing services that can operate in established workflows over the datasets available on the Web, and provide an answer to questions posed by the many who are not experts.

The research issues include eliciting and formalising processes and models, turning them into geo-processes which can be understood and used across disciplines (which includes explanation of the theoretical underpinning of models so that they can be used appropriately), ways of selecting the appropriate service to go with the appropriate data to contribute to addressing a question in ways that are methodologically robust.

Towards a next-generation digital earth
The Vespucci Initiative ( brought together in 2008 a number of environmental and geographic information scientists to consider the changes that have taken place since the 1998 digital earth speech by US Vice President Al Gore. The meeting was an opportunity to consider the major technological developments that have made it possible to bring the experience of digital earth to hundreds of millions of people. It also reviewed many public sector-led initiatives aimed at organising geographic information (e.g. INSPIRE, GEOSS), and private sector developments aimed at organising the world information geographically (e.g. Google Earth and Virtual Earth), which have made it possible for citizens to contribute and share geographic information easily and interact with each other in what is labelled as Web 2.0.

On this basis, the expert meeting articulated a revised vision of digital earth that recognises the need to integrate scientific, public and private sector data to help understand the complex interactions between natural, man-made, and social environments, over time and across space. To support this vision, the meeting identified key research topics to focus on, including improved methods for the spatial-temporal modelling of heterogeneous and dynamic data (citizen-provided, sensors, official); the visualisation of abstract concepts in space (e.g. risk, vulnerability, perceived quality of life); and ways to assess and model reliability and trust in information coming from many different sources. Since then, the International Society for Digital Earth has mobilised the broader community of science to articulate further the vision for Digital Earth for 2020, publishing the outcomes in 2013.

One could argue that with all the work still underway to develop and implement INSPIRE, it is not the time to look for new organisational and technical challenges and research topics. Yet, it is important never to lose sight of the reasons for building these infrastructures, and investing significant public resources to do so. They are not an end in itself but a means to improve Europe’s understanding and stewardship of the environment, and develop knowledge-based society. Without a clear view of where one wants to go and what is needed to get there, one will not be able to guide the process effectively, and address the grand challenges of today and tomorrow.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are of the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent those of the Joint Research Centre or of the European Commission

The European Commission’s Directorate-General Environment is inviting comments on the implementation of the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE) Directive (2007/2/EC). Views are sought from stakeholders including INSPIRE national contact points, regional and local public authorities who produce or use spatial data and services, the academic sector, the private sector and European citizens. Stakeholders can submit their views till Feb 24, 2014. The views are sought to assess whether the actions underway to establish an Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community according to the INSPIRE directive are on course to meet the objectives pursued.