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Spatial Data and Spatial Databases: “Status and Experience in Sri Lanka”

Ranjith Premalal De Silva
Email: [email protected]

There is a long history of the use of spatial data in Sri Lanka. However, the modern state of the art technology, for digital spatial data fostered by rapid development of computer platforms, came into existance among the Scientific community only about two decades ago. The motivation for acquiring and use of digital spatial data was initiated through academic curiosity and interest rather than application oriented challenges for greater speed and accuracy of spatial data representations.

At present, the main source for spatial data are derived from printed paper maps published by the Survey Department of Sri Lanka. This is done by digitizing the scanning and from published literature through keyboard entry. Due to the availability of multi-temporal and multi-spectral resolution capabilities of remote sensing technology, the use of imageries as a data source for spatial databases has been given due consideration within the spatial data user community. Major advances in data capture technology occurred with the development of GPS. These advances are effectively utilized in the country and commercial vendors of the hardware and software play a key role in popularizing the recent technological developments in the sector. The hardware and software vendors do not make an attempt to identify commercial installation and academic set-ups separately because of the limited demand form the users.

However, the Government and affiliated institutional structure isolates spatial data sources from spatial databases. The organizations which are responsible for acquiring spatial data are not generally involved in the use of spatial data or in maintaining spatial databases except in the cases like Survey Department, Meteorological Department and Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka. The expertise in terms of generation and acquiring spatial data and spatial data analysis is not harnessed and an interdisciplinary approach in utilizing spatial data has not yet become a reality.

Foreign donor agencies (ODA, IRDP,UNDP,ADB,JICA, etc.) have invested heavily to procure hardware and software for spatial data acquisition, storage and analysis through projects. Most of the collaborate research programmes have been successful with the contributions from foreign counterparts. Nevertheless, a crtical mass of expertise has yet to be developed locally to enhance the effectiveness of the technology and to sustain the knowledge and experience gained through these projects in the country. Further, there is no common focus or forum for spatial data users to interact among themselves and develop strategies for data sharing and collaboration.

Within national universities, there has been a number of academic initiatives for formal training in the sphere of spatial data. The interdisciplinary nature of spatial data is well understood and hence education and training have not been specific to application in a particular discipline. However, some curricula are focussed on software-driven training (e.g. ARC/INFO Approach) rather than application oriented approach. Further, many users perceive overlaying process as the only functionality available for spatial data analysis.

The accuracy of spatial data is not a serious concern in the spatial data user community. The errors introduced during digitizing and scanning, inherent spatial errors in printed maps, errors in the conversion of analogue to digital form, scale issues, resampling and classification accuracy of remotely sensed data are often ignored in spatial data interpretation.

The importance of database management systems for spatial data has been realized, yet no organization has taken the initiative to develop a common platform for spatial databases. The available databases among individual institutions covering specific target geographical areas or with national thematic coverage remain in isolation and are used only for the pre-defined activities. Further, most of the spatial databases which should be available in the public domain have become personal properties of individuals denying others access to this information. This clearly indicates lack of understanding of the nature of spatial data and importance of digital data sharing. This has led to a situation where each new establishment joining in the sphere of spatial data requires systems with full functionality including data capture.

Although values, procedures and rules with regard to spatial data have been evolved and developed in the world, there is no proper legislation in the country for digital spatial data in terms of the right of an individual to access or liability for spatial data. Due to lack of well – defined legal regime for digital spatial data, some private sector organizations are now attempting to impose copy-right restrictions on the public domain spatial data and databases. There is an urgent need for the legislature to review the existing laws and regulations and impose suitable amendments in the light of advances in digital data environment in the country.

The involvement with the spatial data exchange at regional level is still at its infancy. The concerns related to global and regional phenomena such as environment related issues extend beyond the geographical boundaries of a country. In terms of the spatial data standards, it is a dilemma and a challenge posed to the spatial data community to agree upon common formats, quality standards, conversion mechanisms, storage structures, ownership issues, etc. both at national, regional and global level. Realization of this goal is a prerequisite for the success of efficient and effective utilization of spatial data and spatial databases.