Even 115 years later, the Great Baltimore Fire—which burned down much of the city of Baltimore in the United States—still carries important lessons in standardization. Firefighters from hundreds of kilometres away were sent to assist in putting out the fire, but they could do little to help because their hose couplings did not fit Baltimore’s fire hydrants – meaning, the fire hoses were not standardized. The lack of standardization turned hundreds of firefighters into spectators as the city burned (OGC, ISO & IH, 2018, p. 9).
This analogy underlines the importance of standardization of geospatial information not just during crises and post-disaster imagery, but throughout all implementations and applications of geospatial technologies. Standards are important because they establish the capacity of a product, its parameters, processes, and systems, and can also define terms to avoid misunderstandings.
Challenges in geospatial information management
The use of geospatial information and data is increasing rapidly, not just in governmental, private, and academic communities, but also via the general public, who often contribute to the collection of information even involuntarily (Ibid.).
However, the rapidly increasing number of Earth Observation (EO) data captured by satellites, as well as the independent development of cloud-based and web-accessible EO platforms by numerous public organizations and commercial companies, means that such entities work with massive amounts of data derived from different sources, which can lead to data inconsistency and storage problems (Innerebner et al. 2017, p. 55).
One of the issues is that satellites are capturing massive amounts of data at higher spatial and spectral resolutions than ever before. That means larger download volumes, and even larger in-house IT infrastructure are necessary to manage the volume, if local processing is chosen instead of cloud computing (OGC 2018).
Another issue is that data components such as ‘location’ can be defined in many different ways, for example names, coordinates, boundaries, administrative districts, NUTS code, floor plans, polygons, bus stops, etc. The requirement to make location data and location services sharable, re-usable and interoperable makes the task even more challenging (Simonis, 2016, p. 1). Uncertainty, precision, and the unevenness of who has access and to what kind of data, are all added difficulty factors (Ibid.).
Additionally, the lack of leadership commitment, funding, consensus among stakeholders, and clear governance structure can also provide challenges to standardization. The lack of understanding of the value proposition of using a standards-based approach and a lack of knowledge and experience in standards implementation are also major limiting factors (OGC, ISO & IH, 2018, p. 12).
As such, the standardization of geospatial data is important, because data is only truly valuable, if it is easy to access and to use. Given the number and diversity of data sources and users, there is indeed “an overwhelming requirement to easily discover and share this information” (Ibid., p. 4).
Benefits of standardization
Standards play a key role in delivering trustworthy and reliable geospatial services and products. The goal of open standards is to ensure that interoperability, meaning the ability to integrate datasets and related EO services of different origin and types, will minimize costs and problems that originate from the lack of standardization (Ibid., p. 6).
In order to make the best use of public sector information data, which often has extremely valuable spatial components to it, the data need to be not only standardized, but also made available openly. Through standardization, information integration becomes easier and data becomes more easily discoverable and trackable. But even further, “geospatial information, technologies and standards help to enable and improve the sharing, integration and application of geospatial information for decision making” further enabling the promotion of open data benefits (Ibid, p. 10).
The two types of standardization are content standardization and interface standardization. The majority of international standards are developed by Standards Development Organizations (SDOs) which use a consensus process guided by documented, repeatable and well proven policies and procedures (Ibid., p. 7). One example, the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) initiatives, such as the ones in New Zealand and France, implement standards worldwide which encapsulate geospatial data development, production, management, discovery, access, sharing, visualization, and analysis.
Other examples include the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI), which uses standards to support the discovery and publishing of geospatial data, and the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), is a set of coordinated, independent Earth observation, information and processing systems that that facilitate the sharing of environmental data and information collected in a standardized format from the wide array of EO systems contributed by countries and other GEO data providers.
Further, GEOSS ensures that these data are accessible, of identified provenance, and interoperable to support the development of tools and the delivery of information services. This ‘system of systems’, through its GEOSS Platform (former GEOSS Common Infrastructure (GCI)), proactively links together existing and planned observing systems around the world and supports the need for the development of new systems when needed. By the promotion and implementation of standards data from thousands of different instruments can be combined into coherent data sets (GEO 2019).
Overall, as organizations and jurisdictions develop and agree on a common set of open standards, the ability to share geospatial information is enhanced, eventually reducing costs, improving service provision, and facilitating new economic opportunities (OGC, ISO & IH, 2018, p. 10). “Standards for geospatial information can be seen as a continuum, which enables the achievement of increasing levels of geospatial information interoperability as more standards are adopted to keep pace with evolving requirements, technologies and tools” (Ibid., p. 12).