Making Spatial Data Infrastructures Work

Making Spatial Data Infrastructures Work

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Making Spatial Data Infrastructures Work - Ed Parsons, Google
Ed Parsons, Geospatial Technologist, Google

Q. Why SDIs are not working like they were meant to be?
A. I think the principal concept behind Spatial Data Infrastructures is a good one. Clearly no one would argue that sharing geospatial information with a broadest community possible is a good idea.

I think part of the problem is historic. Traditional data publishers, mapping agencies, cadastral agencies, used to serving a professional market in a particular way, have largely developed the SDIs.

And, I think as a result of that in the SDI‘s that you see around the world at local, regional, national, even at a global scale, have developed on technology platforms that requires specialised and just do geospatial. And, as a result of that I think they have missed many the opportunities, that the broader web, which is more standardised, more widely used, brings.

And as a result, I think often the content that is published by SDIs, remains invisible to the broader community web users.

Q. So do you mean that usability of SDIs and the data is the challenge?
A. When we think usability on the web, it ultimately comes down to the question of accessibility. How accessible could you make your information? And there’s a technology element to that.

And that’s about being a good web citizen, making sure that you publish your content on the web, which is accessible via web browsers via a URL or a URI.

And then obviously, there are the policy issues as well. And that’s more towards Open Data policies, making sure licensing is is brought and is easily accessible. And on both of those aspects, I think SDI‘s have gone quite a long way.

But, its only 80% of to the job done. There’s another 20% that is about making the data web accessible, being good web citizens. And I think there is still probably some work to do around licensing, with the recognition that the end uses aren’t necessary going to be someone that you know.

Lot of the success of the modern App Market is built on the APIs and programming platforms, where a developer has quite a loose connection to the platform. Developer may not be aware of whose building applications and what the end users of those applications are doing.

And I think that’s something that many traditional mapping agencies and government agencies are uncertain about. They want to know who their end user is, and sometimes for valid reasons. But that is kind of a counter to the way the apps are developing these days.

Q. In SDIs is Data Security still a challenge and is something we need to worry about?
A. Security is a complex issue. Technology on the web is about, you choosing to share information with how you want to share it with, and not sharing it with any one else.

And that I think now a days means that most of the services that you use, data will be encrypted, when it is REST, as we say as a service somewhere. And it will be included in transit, say when is moving from one server to another server, it will be encrypted.

And modern encryption is very very strong. It’s almost impossible to break, modern encryption, that’s widely used.

In any said a reasonable period of time, if the data is encrypted, and the organisation is hosting your data, they are doing a good job, you should be reasonably sure that your data is secure.

But in terms of SDI, may be there is still a fundamental question the people need to answer is do I really want to share my data? And by sharing, it actually means that the data is available to anyone, to reuse it, remix it, combine it with something else.

Because once your data is out on the Internet, you’re sharing; it’s a bit like Mercury. It will flow in whichever direction it chooses to flow. And once it’s out there, you can’t really stop that.

So in case if I’ve chosen to share data, it will be shared. If I choose not to share data, its encrypted, no really gets access to it.

Q. On success of web mapping services in consumer market, and how SDIs can learn from it?
A. I think in many ways you could argue that, the consumer market is trying to do simple things. In many cases the data that traditional SDIs are dealing with is much more complicated, have much richer data models and so on.

But I think what we can take from the consumer market is is a very strong focus on the user. They are very focused on what are the actual user needs for a particular application. How do we measure those? How do we see how well we meeting those needs? How can we monitor if those needs are changing?

And I think those people that are developing Apps today, be it on the web or in mobile devices have that very strong focus. In that you see releases of mapping apps and mobile phones happening every two or three weeks or every month with developments, changes and most of those developments and changes are based on their feedback of monitoring how people are using applications, what’s working, what’s not working.

That user focus I think is really powerful, really valuable. And it’s something that developers of SDIs, focused maybe more government users could take on board.

Q. The services you are taking about are done by private or a large public player with a lot of resources isn’t it?
A. This question is an easy one and an interesting one. I mean everyone has constraints these days. Even, large commercial companies have to pick and choose how they invest their time and capital in building new services, new applications.

There is probably more flexibility if you have a community of users that’s paying license fees or you’re supporting your services by advertising. Which is what Google does. So, perhaps there’s a bit more flexibility there.

But I think, there’s a more fundamental question. Which is, what do we expect in infrastructure to provide? And often we throw too much functionality, too much complexity in to an infrastructure.

In my talk at GeoQuest 2015, someone asked a question about the balance between, what goes into the infrastructure and what goes into the applications that sit above that. If you look at, you know the really popular apps on your mobile phone – the Google Maps, the Facebook or Instagram, their applications sit on top of a relatively basic Internet infrastructure. Behind all those apps, there are web service and traffic that is moving over HTTP.

You don’t see that! That’s invisible to you. And compared to the complexity of application, that that traffic is quite simple. Perhaps in SDI I terms, we’ve thrown too much into the infrastructure.

We cam maybe, back-off a little bit and say, this is in a very simple level just about sharing data on a website somewhere, and we let more of that complexity to happen in the applications. Which are by their nature, more focused on vertical markets around particular user needs.

Q. WebGIS concept we have is already a simplified version. Do you mean to say we need to rethink and go back to WebGIS?
A. I think so; it’s only Web GIS that solved problems and big issues in terms of publishing data. And in some ways maybe, you can think of your Web GIS is the obvious application that sits on top of an SDI.

And don’t bring, web mapping into SDI itself, but think of it that sits on top of an SDI. And the SDIs are much more at this very basic level, saying at this particular URI, you will always find information about this particular land parcel.

And that means, that data is always accessible to people, is consistently accessible, and then its in a format that an application developer, another agency can build on top, with that reassurance that the underlying infrastructure is not going to change.

Q. What are three suggestions that you will give to make SDIs a success?
A. I think first of all be a good web citizen. And as I said that’s about publishing all your content by default on the web, using as simple tools as possible you know. Using HTML, using SVG, using the language is that the rest of the web uses.

And looking at the emerging fields of Semantic Web and Linked Data. Because above and beyond publishing your data, to the next step is to publish your data in a semantically rich way, that makes it easier for people then to build applications. Say that if you talk about a highway, and someone else talks about a motorway, we know you were talking about the same thing.

That’s the next step. And I think the third step is to build an ecosystem that works, support that ecosystem. Say, I know that I’ve built my infrastructure that people won’t necessarily come and use it, unless I advertise, I support, I market what I’ve built.

You know there is a famous film quote, “If you build it they will come!” But actually that doesn’t work! If you build it, nobody comes unless you tell them. So be a good web citizen, invest and look at the Semantic Web and then foster the ecosystem around the infrastructure you have built.

Q. Market Place and Apps around it is a very successful model these days. How can SDIs take that route?
A. I think Geo Portals are great, and they meet the needs of a particular community of users.

But reality is, if you really want to meet needs of some specialist vertical markets, or particularly easy communities, most government agencies and indeed many commercial organisations, don’t have the bandwidth and don’t have the expertise.

Those people that are smart build an infrastructure, the allows an ecosystem to exist around that, and allows application developers to go down a particular route, plug into that infrastructure and build an application that is very focused on particular using needs a particular market requirements.