As the world becomes increasingly flat in terms of economy and technology solutions, there is a growing realisation that some of the pressing challenges of modern society (such as climate change, environment) need to be addressed at a global and regional level than just at local level. As geoinformation is at the core of all these tasks, it is but imperative to build necessary spatial data infrastructures at these levels to find comprehensive and cohesive solutions.
The Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE) is one such initiative. The INSPIRE Directive 2007/2/EC aims to make harmonised, high quality spatial information readily available to support environmental policies along with policies or activities which may have an impact on the environment in Europe. This legally mandated project brings 27 countries together to build an SDI on 34 related themes.
To ensure that spatial data and services are accessible in the Community and cross border context in an interoperable way, the Directive requires that technical implementing rules are adopted by all the member states for the interoperability of the infrastructure – metadata, interoperability of spatial data and services, network services, data and service sharing and monitoring and reporting – and national infrastructures are adapted accordingly.
A technical baseline was published which was instrumental for drafting the legal act. The Directive takes into account evolving technology as it requires periodic evaluation and assessment leading to possible review. The Commission is assisted by relevant organisations, in particular the European Environment Agency (EEA) in defining various data themes covered by the Directive.
Digital Agenda for Europe and INSPIRE: To be in sync with the rapidly changing world, the ‘Europe 2020’ launched in March 2010, defines a growth strategy for the EU to become a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy. One of the flagship initiatives of the Europe 2020 strategy is the ‘Digital Agenda for Europe’, which aims to create a ‘digital single market’ based on fast and ultra fast internet and interoperable applications to deliver sustainable economic and social benefits.
The Agenda identifies a raft of measures (101 actions) and INSPIRE aspects fit into some of them. “The directive on re-use of public sector information under the pillar ‘digital single market’ is tightly connected to INSPIRE data sharing,” informs Alessandro Annoni, Head- Spatial Data Infrastructure Unit, Joint Research Centre, European Commission. The pillar ‘ICT for social challenges’ covers e-government and e-environmental services that are both relevant for INSPIRE, he adds. However, the stronger technical impact is under the pillar ‘interoperability and standards’, just as INSPIRE promotes data sharing and data interoperability across Europe.
The implementing strategy for INSPIRE consists of a three-pronged approach. First, an open, transparent and participatory process was adopted for developing the implementing rules. To this, the Commission established an open register of spatial data interest communities, legally mandated organisations and projects. Experts from these organisations form the core of an expanding network and all organisations in the member states rely on the core group for implementation support. Member states so far have unanimously approved the INSPIRE implementation rules which the Commission has proposed for adoption.
Second, the Commission, in collaboration with the member states and EEA, has set up a strong and adequately resourced coordination structure with a clear repartition of tasks.
Support to the implementation and awareness-raising is the third part of the strategy. In this direction, the Commission has set up a virtual INSPIRE Forum and has raised the priority for INSPIRE implementation through various financial instruments. “This has resulted in a large number of projects, several even beyond the borders of the EU,” apprises Hugo DE GROOF, Chief Scientist, Research & Innovation Unit, European Commission-DG Environment-F-4.
While the European Commission plays the role of a coordinator, the onus of implementing INSPIRE rests on the member states, and they are adopting a variety of strategies. “Some countries (like Norway) decided to fully embed INSPIRE in their national e-government programmes, so that the technical solutions and deadlines are synchronised with other relevant e-government requirements. Other countries (like France) profited with the presence of strong central government agencies and assigned them the responsibility of coordination and so effectively used their existing infrastructures as starting points. Countries (like Germany, Spain) adopted a regional/federal model keeping the responsibility to coordinate, assist and fill the gaps at the central level. Content priorities and thematic relevance were interpreted in different ways giving the main responsibility to a national mapping agency (like in Poland) or to a national environmental agency (as in UK, Czech Republic). For better coordination of implementation, some countries have decided to create councils for spatial information composed by representative of relevant ministries (Poland, Finland),” details Alessandro.
CHALLENGES AND WAY FORWARD
The INSPIRE Directive is acknowledged at the international level as a unique model, but the implementation of an SDI at the scale of 27 countries, of which many have federal or strongly regionalised government structures, is a massive challenge. Agreeing on common standards, data policies and crossborder alignment of data resources and models is no doubt challenging, as well as maintaining the right balance between flexibility and long-term stability.
Data heterogeneity: The fact that member states have agreed politically to establish INSPIRE through a legislative approach, has already allowed overcoming the biggest challenge, says Hugo. To overcome the heterogeneity, an open, transparent and participatory approach was adopted and a complex organisation framework was set-up to allow member states’ extensive participation in all phases. In addition, the extensive consultation campaigns undertaken with stakeholders enabled addressing several issues.
While dealing with 27 countries, data heterogeneity is often expected to be a challenge. To overcome this barrier, a thematic working group has been set up for each data theme. This group has the mandate to consider existing data specifications and make cost/benefit considerations when proposing INSPIRE draft specifications. However, experts working on INSPIRE feel that it essentially is not a problem. “This may be well justified given the wide variety of use cases.
However, when spatial data needs to be combined for dealing, for example, with cross-border pressures on the environment (such a floods, with sea regions or for transboundary air pollution), INSPIRE presents spatial data specifications modelled to take the intrinsic relationships into account. The harmonisation of these data models, and the gradual migration of data in member states for becoming compliant with these models, is a first step to improve the interoperability of spatial data,” says Hugo.
However, INSPIRE does not oblige member states to collect new data, nor does it specifies methods or measurement techniques for the actual collection of spatial data. As a result, and despite INSPIRE, it may still remain difficult to have comparable data on the same theme across borders. Considering the importance given to harmonised approaches to deal with climate change, we may expect more and more comparable data becoming available through the INSPIRE services.
Technical challenges: Pointing out the challenges from a technical point of view, Alessandro says, “The main challenge is related to the lack of maturity of existing standards and the approach taken in INSPIRE where the legal acts only impose abstract specification (the what must be done), whereas the detailed specifications included in the associated guidelines (the how should be done) are not legally binding. As a consequence, we don’t have obligation for interoperability requirements at the level of encoding. To overcome this challenge, the Initial Operating Capability Task Force (IOC-TF) has been set-up to achieve a consensus.”
Challenge of trust: Another challenge lies in optimising the use of INSPIRE data. INSPIRE takes the accessibility of public data to a new level. A big challenge is to see whether government agencies will dare to rely on data which comes from another agency instead of developing their own data. That is the challenge of trust in data from say, a sister agency. “These cannot be changed overnight. But the general movement is of more interdependencies among agencies and more relying on data which comes from a certified source. However, there are lot of practical, institutional issues they have to deal with, argues Rob van de Velde, Director, Geonovum, and adds, “In the Netherlands, we organise training and support sessions and make tools available to help organisations test their conformity to the standards. We also organise seminars with policy makers, people in public administration and private sector to place developments of spatial data in a broader perspective.
There are fairly good conditions for working together on implementing INSPIRE, implementing SDI and implementing new applications of geospatial data.”
Budget cuts: In the backdrop of slowing economic situation in Eurozone and the consequent and inevitable budget cuts and shifting priorities, INSPIRE plans to focus on more strategic components of the infrastructure and on verticals (like LBS) where the user demand is higher. The INSPIRE team is also exploring other scenarios including public-private partnerships. An optimistic Alessandro opines that reduced budget availability acts as a driver for better collaboration among public authorities forcing them to leverage investments and share duties and responsibilities.
To see INSPIRE implemented according to its roadmap, it is necessary to step-up the awareness raising and implementation support. The Commission, together with the national coordination structures, recognises this as high priority. The political push given through the Digital Agenda for Europe also acts as a catalyst. Finally, compliance with EU level legislation is not an option. Even in times of economic downturn, this remains high on priority as the costs of non-implementation are well known to largely exceed the cost of implementation. “The Commission, as guardian of the treaty, needs to monitor progress towards compliance and eventually remind the member states of their responsibility, if necessary even through enforcement,” exhorts Hugo.
Capacity building: There is a huge challenge related to capacity building. INSPIRE changes sometimes fundamentally the way things are done, people need to be trained, software and ICT systems adjusted. Some countries find it difficult to find the experts needed to implement INSPIRE. “We need the capacity to also deal with newly emerging requirements – also from other policy areas such as transport, spatial planning, agriculture etc. which may have an impact on the environment. Indeed, there are many custodians of spatial data whose core activities are not necessarily directly related to the environment, but their efforts for building capacity and general buy-in is very important to meet the final objective of INSPIRE – improving our societal knowledge for a more sustainable and responsible development,” Hugo says.
Reports from the member states and the results from independent surveys show that great progress has been made even by those member states where the transposition into national legislation experienced some delays.
“The deadline of 2019 gives the member states seven years to adopt to the data specifications and is certainly not an ambitious timeline. Implementation is progressing stepwise and there are several intermediate deadlines to be met. However, there is evidence of progress and as the momentum and experience is building up, we are confident that full implementation can indeed be achieved by 2019,” says Hugo.
INSPIRE model is a pioneering and guiding initiative and can be adapted to develop regional SDIs in other parts of the world like Latin America, Asia and Africa as it makes possible to cope with heterogeneous countries in terms of national SDI development. “It requires minimum efforts for coordination and provides a fast track to establish a regional SDI,” signs off Alessandro.