GWPrime

What Do Geospatial Standards Look Like in 2021?

It has been six months since my first GW Prime opinion piece about standards being the foundation of data ecosystems. In that piece, I relayed the urgency of engaging in the standards development process at this moment in time — when the future so clearly depends on the integration of location-referenced data and information. I am happy that the article generated some great follow-on dialog about the role of standards and the evolution of the standards development process.

In this piece, I want to capture and build upon that dialog. In particular, I want to address the following three questions:

  • In today’s rapid pace, “move fast and break things” world, do we really still need standards?
  • Haven’t we already developed all the geospatial standards we need?
  • Can standards keep up with the accelerating pace of innovation?

Let’s go through these one by one – starting with what I consider to be the easy question:

In today’s rapid pace, “move fast and break things” world, do we really still need standards?

Of course we do! It’s certainly exciting to see geospatial at the center of several futuristic visions, such as urban digital twins, or self-driving vehicles, just as it’s humbling to see geospatial at the heart of responses to global issues like the current pandemic and Climate Change. This integration of geospatial into the mainstream has only served to increase the data-integration challenges that standards seek to solve.

Data can now be considered a “pillar” upon which modern society has been built. Data supports countless decisions made daily across the globe, and as I said in my previous column, our thirst for data to feed into these decision-making models continues to increase. Creating models about complex systems requires a diversity of data sourced from many different, usually unrelated, providers. Yet, despite the ubiquity of data-driven insight, models, predictions, decision-making, analysis, etc., we still waste countless hours and effort during that first step of integrating data from disparate sources. Data standards seek to greatly ease the act of data integration — to the point of making it seamless.

Indeed, I believe that the only way we can address global threats like Climate Change or future pandemics at the global scale is if data is made available using open standards. As long as there are problems that transcend the boundaries of departments, organizations, agencies, countries, and/or continents, we will need agreed-upon standards to be able to share information and implement solutions at those scales.

As long as there are problems that transcend the boundaries of departments, organizations, agencies, countries, and/or continents, we will need agreed-upon standards to be able to share information and implement solutions at those scales

Now, that being said, I have noticed that the flip side of this dialog is:

Haven’t we already developed all the geospatial standards we need?

It’s a lot of work designing standards, so I am sure we all wish that this was true! In reality, it can never be true. Our problems keep changing; data sources, sensors, technologies and platforms are always changing; user requirements and expectations are always changing; societal attitudes are always changing (for example, see the recent discussions concerning data privacy and ethical uses of location information). As these things change, so, too, do the standards surrounding them.

I can say this with confidence as I look at the current OGC standards development activities and note how the level of abstraction has been getting higher. We have come a long way since “enabling data access, sharing, and discovery” were our core goals: these days, OGC is developing best practices for domains like Smart Cities, Health, and Disaster Resilience. We are thinking about data quality and Machine Learning training data sharing in the NewSpace domain; we are optimizing the packaging of location information for mobile devices; we are researching cross-Cloud interoperability and data-centric security; we are creating APIs to connect to Internet of Things devices; and the list goes on. And, to top it all off, the community is modernizing our existing standards to align with modern web-development best practices and to ensure that we can provide maps and spatial data to a world that’s hungry for, and reliant upon, this information. Again, as long as technology keeps evolving, so will standards for data access, sharing, discovery and integration.

To me, this also brings to the forefront the interconnectedness of the global data ecosystem. With geospatial now appealing to the mainstream, now more than ever, we have to work closely with partner organizations and SDOs worldwide to ensure that geospatial standards can align with mainstream technologies, practices and expectations.

Can standards keep up with the accelerating pace of innovation?

Now, this is my favorite question. One observation is that standardization is taking on a new meaning in today’s world: it’s now less about standardizing specific technologies and more about enabling cross-domain collaboration and solid foundations upon which innovation can thrive. If we look closely, it’s inspiring to see that traditional standards development (and not just in the geospatial realm) is being replaced with an approach that increasingly integrates innovation and standardization. This approach is more agile, more proactive and tightly coupled with community engagement and partnership building. This is my favorite question because it’s what we strive to do at OGC. Our programs support rapid innovation by producing standards that are able to adapt in-step with technological change that are able to support tomorrow’s needs without tearing up the work done today.

All of these questions underscore the value of not just standards but community building. The more voices that are represented in the creation of a technology (whether it’s a standard or some other innovation), the more broadly useful it will be, the more likely it is to be adopted, and the bigger its impact will be.

My conclusion here is another plea for urgency to collaborate to ensure that geospatial meets the expectations of a complex, diverse, interconnected world; to ensure that location information remains aligned with the FAIR principles of being Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable; and to use our geospatial expertise and community power to create and maintain solid data foundations that support the technologies and decisions that affect us all.

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.

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