Standards are the Foundation of Data Ecosystems

Location counts. There is no dearth of articles and talks around the ‘new spatial revolution’ or how ‘location is at the heart of Industry 4.0.’ The fact is that geospatial has finally moved up the value chain and is now being acknowledged as both an enabler and a differentiator in more domains than can fit in this article.

The growing recognition of ‘geospatial’ is largely due to location’s unparalleled ability to function as the organizing principle that unites heterogeneous data. But while location allows us to contextualize diverse data, the ability to seamlessly integrate it for analysis requires standards.

Seamless data integration

Over time our community has evolved from being seen as geospatial pioneers to GIS technologists, and now, to experts at using location to integrate diverse data and create new value. One current example of this location-based value is how the geospatial industry mobilized to support responses to the COVID pandemic. Every dashboard, every quarantine/de-quarantine plan, and every contact-tracing app relies on location for data integration and contextualization, and every one of these applications is creating tremendous value for communities the world over.

Data integration sits at the heart of the decision-making, analysis, and prediction processes that help us make sense of, and exist in, our world. Because of humanity’s newfound appetite for — even reliance on — data, we continue to invent new technologies that generate data about nearly every aspect of human activity: Unmanned Aerial Systems, Connected Autonomous Vehicles, Internet of Things, Underground Infrastructure, New Space, Sail Drones, and so many other new technologies all generate troves of data tethered to a location in space and time.

Combining these new sources of data with other data collected — usually by other unrelated parties — in that same location, often unlocks new insights. This is a well understood cornerstone of our field — who amongst us hasn’t recently heard about the benefits of ‘integrated data analysis,’ ‘data-driven decision-making,’ ‘geospatial at scale,’ or ‘actionable intelligence’? All of these concepts integrate large amounts of heterogeneous data coming from diverse sources with dissimilar models and collected for different purposes. To many, that sounds a little overwhelming. They’re not wrong, data integration is a real challenge!

Given the known benefits of overcoming heterogeneous data integration, we have an incentive – or an impetus even — to make data integration as seamless as possible to create a sort of ‘data ecosystem’ where diverse data sources and software can easily be combined in novel ways to create value and provide a platform for innovation.

Data integration sits at the heart of the decision-making, analysis, and prediction processes that help us make sense of, and exist in, our world. Because of humanity’s newfound appetite for — even reliance on — data, we continue to invent new technologies that generate data about nearly every aspect of human activity

Standards and interoperability

The only way to create such a data ecosystem is for data providers and software developers to agree upon a set of standards that guarantee interoperability. Consensus-based open standards, when created by an engaged user community, ensure interoperability, enhance collaboration, and create a diverse, interoperable, decentralized software and data ecosystem that benefits all participants. Simultaneously, this means that the only requirement for participation in the ecosystem is compliance with its standards, making it as accessible for the small players as it does the large.

While it’s impossible to create universal, perpetual standards, it is possible to design them to easily evolve in-step with technological progress, so that we don’t have to start from scratch every few years. This is why the new OGC API family of standards are being developed in a fully modular and extensible fashion, and with on-going community consultation, engagement, and field-testing.

If standards are what enable healthy data ecosystems, it is critical that we get the foundation right. With this in mind, I implore you, as readers and representatives of your organizations, to actively engage in the development of standards. These could be general IT standards, location standards, navigation standards, communication standards, EO standards, or any other domain- or community-specific standards. The more voices that are involved in standards development, the more useful the standards become, and the more likely they are to be adopted. We all need to engage in deciding the standards of the future if we are all to benefit.

The geospatial community is privileged to play such an integral part in humanity’s data future — there has never been this much potential for data integration and analysis, just as there has never been more of a need for interoperability between disparate resources. It is important to recognize not only the technical ability of standards to improve data integration and interoperability, but also how their creation and adoption are conduits to innovation, collaboration, and partnerships within and across communities and regions.

From those of us involved in standards development, this is an invitation to you to join us to not just enable but actually drive this new data ecosystem toward its full potential. We need to have a strong foundation of consensus-based standards to ensure that location information remains aligned with the FAIR principles of being Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable.

What I want to leave you with is not just the value of standards, but also the urgency of being part of the standards development process at this moment in time, when the future so clearly depends on improved data integration and interoperability. As leaders in the location world, let’s collaborate on a strong foundation of standards and interoperability that will create a healthy data ecosystem that connects people, communities, technology, and decision-making for the good of society.

Author Bio

Dr. Nadine Alameh is the CEO of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), an international organization dedicated to making location information findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (FAIR) via consensus-based standards, collaborative agile development, and industry partnerships. Dr. Alameh is a recognized leader in the field of Geospatial Information Systems (GIS), with experience in a multitude of domains including Aviation, Earth Observations, Public Safety and Defense. Prior to OGC, she held various roles in industry from the Chief Architect for Innovation in Northrop Grumman’s Civil Solutions Unit; to CEO of a small international Aviation data exchange business; to senior technical advisor to NASA’s Applied Science Program. Dr. Alameh graduated from MIT with a Ph.D. in Information Systems Engineering, and 2 Master Degrees in Civil Engineering and Urban Planning with a concentration in Geospatial Information Systems. She holds a BS degree in Computer Engineering from the American University of Beirut.