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Moving Beyond SDIs: Are We Ready to Take the Leap?

As we undergo continuous technology change, digital transformation and innovation in the geospatial industry, it is clear that the SDI model has not progressed with the pace of societal and technological change.

A few months ago, I finally managed to complete a significant piece of academic research which began in early 2015, at a time when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 2030 Agenda were still being worked out by world leaders. The research developed a national strategic geospatial framework to assist countries in integrating geospatial information into sustainable development strategies and processes. Suffice to say, it is now captured within the Overarching Strategic Framework of the United Nations Integrated Geospatial Information Framework (IGIF). While not a focus of the research, the role of Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDIs), and their relevance in the future geospatial data ecosystem, kept coming up as a point of debate, or should I say conflict, in my mind – which has persisted for the past five years!

SDI concepts are now more than 30 years old, emerging in the mid-1980s within the academic community. These concepts took a substantial leap forward in the early 1990s when the United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) established the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) to coordinate the ‘development, use, sharing, and dissemination of surveying, mapping, and related spatial data’. OMB Circular A16 of 1992 (revised 2002) defined the SDI as “the technology, policies, standards, human resources and related activities to acquire, process, distribute, use, maintain and preserve spatial data”. Over time, the literature has provided many similar definitions that generally reflect SDIs and National Spatial Data Infrastructures (NSDIs) as being “coordinated actions of nations and organizations that promote the awareness and implementation of complementary policies, common standards and institutional arrangements for the development and availability of interoperable digital geographic data and technologies to support decision-making at all scales for multiple purposes”.

But now in 2020, and as we undergo continuous technology change, digital transformation and innovation in the geospatial industry, it is clear that the SDI model has not progressed with the pace of societal and technological change. It is interesting that while we appear to be quite comfortable with all of the technology terms and jargon that have recently evolved – almost overnight – we are still, generally, using the same SDI approaches, definitions and terminologies developed decades ago. While SDIs can readily benefit from and adopt the new technologies available, I am not so sure this is happening, at least at the rate we would expect. In fact, many countries, and developing countries especially, are still trying to understand and implement SDI concepts as defined 20 years ago, because they lack geospatial data to meet their needs.

In fact, many countries, and developing countries especially, are still trying to understand and implement SDI concepts as defined 20 years ago, because they lack geospatial data to meet their needs

A leap of faith

The global geospatial community has become very comfortable in referring to SDIs, but hasn’t seriously evaluated its inadequacies, preferring to adhere to a well-established mould. To the point, is it now time to change tact, to move beyond the SDI paradigm as we know it? Bruce McCormack said many years ago, when SDI was in its infancy – “just do it as a leap of faith”. Is now the time for another leap of faith, to take a leap towards more contemporary approaches and terminologies? A number of important signals suggest that the answer is most definitely yes, not the least being the apprehension (or confusion) generated by the development of the IGIF. Let me explain, and with some important personal context.

In the process of developing the Integrated Geospatial Information Framework (IGIF) and its detailed Implementation Guide, I had the rare privilege of being able to facilitate 15 consultation workshops and meetings with more than 730 geospatial experts from 133 countries between April 2018 and February 2020. This included five major workshops in Africa. To say these workshops opened up long and thoughtful, oftentimes provocative debates on the role of SDIs, would be an understatement. Some of the very first questions – by all countries – included: what is the purpose of the IGIF, what is the difference between the SDI and the IGIF, and what additional value and benefit does the IGIF bring to SDI development (as an indication of not letting go of that earlier comfort level)?

On reflection, being able to discuss and answer these questions with hundreds of stakeholders has made the IGIF what it is today as a globally adopted Framework – and one that is country led and country owned.

The IGIF provides a basis and guide for developing, integrating, strengthening and maximizing geospatial information management and related resources in all countries. Image courtesy: UN-GGIM

For those of you not so aware, the IGIF is a multi-dimensional Framework that is aimed at strengthening national geospatial information arrangements in countries, developing countries in particular. It comprises an overarching strategy, implementation guidance, and action plans at the country level. At the strategic level, the IGIF contains a vision, mission, strategic drivers, seven principles, eight goals, nine strategic pathways, and many defined benefits. However, through the Implementation Guide, anchored by the 9 strategic pathways, the IGIF provides the detailed guidance on ‘integrating’ geospatial information with any other meaningful data to solve societal and environmental problems, and to provide understanding and benefit from a country’s national development priorities and the SDGs.

Importantly, the IGIF is not an infrastructure. It is a standalone ‘framework’, independent of an SDI and other infrastructures. That said, the IGIF fundamentally recognizes, builds substantially upon, and augments previous investments and achievements in planning and implementing SDIs and NSDIs. These implementations have historically focused on the collection and curation of data and the implementation of technologies as a means to provide systems and services for facilitating spatial data access and sharing.

The IGIF not only provides additional reasoning, structure and evidence as to why SDI’s are important, but also provides a guiding roadmap of options and actions to plan for, develop, and implement an integrated national geospatial information management program, aligned to national strategies priorities, and circumstances within a country.

While there is an obvious and continuing need for underpinning geospatial infrastructure, I would argue that the future should now have a much greater emphasis towards ‘integration’ of data, technology, infrastructure, social, institutional, organizational, partnerships, innovation…and knowledge. So, beyond the traditional SDI concepts and architecture, the IGIF focuses on the governance, legal, financial, capacity, and engagement processes necessary to collect, maintain, integrate and share geospatial information, through all levels of government and society, in a modern and enabling technology environment. This approach contributes to understanding capacity shortcomings while building a more sustainable program. While this provides a catalyst for change, there is more.

The future should now have a much greater emphasis towards ‘integration’ of data, technology, infrastructure, social, institutional, organizational, partnerships, innovation…and knowledge

A new paradigm

Earlier this year, the European Umbrella Organization for Geographic Information (EUROGI) initiated a ‘Beyond SDI’ discussion, inviting a number of global thought leaders in the geospatial field to contribute their perspectives on the future of the SDI. This was an experiment to see if there is a need for a new paradigm, what might be the key features of such a new paradigm, and how to build on or move beyond the current SDI model. Sixteen contributors, including myself, provided their perspectives on what framework or paradigm is now best suited to deal with existing and emerging realities in the geospatial domain. The position statements, were wide-ranging – from SDI’s being dead, right through to needing to be agile and ubiquitous, turning the explosion of data into an effective network of global information and knowledge. These statements were published by EUROGI and followed up by a webinar convened in May. A position paper is now being prepared to consider these in more detail.

In March this year, the 10 chapters of the draft Implementation Guide of the IGIF were subjected to a broad global consultation with the global geospatial information community for four months, and yielded 1,350 separate items to review and consider in the Guide’s refinement and finalization. The extensive review resulted in some interesting insights regarding SDIs; are we still talking about an ‘infrastructure’ or should we be talking more about an integrated system of geospatial information and capacity in some way?

IGIF, as an integrated framework, offers a new model and mechanism to further strengthen nationally integrated geospatial information management and the desired transformational change that is required.

There is confusion on this topic and none of us really know where this will end up, but that is okay. The journey has been as important as the outcome, which will continue to evolve. While still ‘a work in progress’, the IGIF, as an integrated framework, offers a new model and mechanism to further strengthen nationally integrated geospatial information management and the desired transformational change that is required.

A final thought: location underpins everything we do. Its full integration with other data of importance to our lives is key to providing better, and more importantly, more useful information, knowledge, insights and shared understandings, which in turn will enable us to so much better achieve the SDGs and other important international to local goals. That is our new leap of faith!

PS: Please do read Dr. Fraser Taylor’s recent Opinion piece on Challenges in Mainstreaming Geospatial Information. Some of these central messages also apply to our own definitions and terminologies in describing and communicating what geospatial information is and does. Leadership, branding, and easy-to-understand language are key ingredients.

Author Bio

Greg Scott joined the United Nations Statistics Division in 2012 with the specific task of establishing the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) and growing its relevance and status with Member States and related International Organizations involved in national, regional and global geospatial information management. Greg provides strategic policy advice and leadership, and guides the development, coordination and implementation of the substantive content for the Committee of Experts, including its World Geospatial Information Congress, High-Level Forum's, international technical capacity development workshops, and other international fora.

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