Let my plumber Jez build your SDI..

The 11th Spatial Data Infrastructure Conference was held last week in Rotterdam, and like many SDI conference the focus of presentations and the profile of attendees was largely from the pubic sector, and in many cases public sector data producers.

Many of the sessions investigated in depth, progress to date across the many local, regional and global efforts to develop SDI’s, other focused on the building blocks of data standards and interoperability, metadata, portal design and legal/policy decisions.

I sensed, as I’m sure many others did, the missing perspective of the actual intended users of these SDI’s; who represented the users and consumers of these complex systems? who was providing the use cases, as to what sort of information was actually needed?  and how would people like to access SDI’s and what might they want to do with the information.

The citizen as a potential user of SDI’s was almost completely ignored.

In my presentation I made the point that there is also a lack of emphasis on the development of the very necessary network and storage infrastructure needed to allow distributed users to find, access and use spatial data across the web, and made the offer than Google and I’m sure the other geoweb companies would be happy to host data on behalf of public sector bodies.

SDI people like the SD but ignore the I !

This was developed into a useful metaphor by someone in the audience, when I likened this type of infrastructure to domestic plumbing, vital but often invisible until it breaks.

It seems that at the moment much of the industries emphasis is on producing the best quality water that is possible ,while at the same time developing and agreeing on a method to illustrate how pure and clear the water is. To be fair we may also now be discussing the size and shape of bottles we might use to store our water and the colour and design of the labels we will put on the bottles.

As to how we might distribute the water efficiently, there is still little discussion beyond the vague idea that it will obviously need some pipes, valves and taps of a standardised size..

plumber-spanerThis is all good stuff, but if you ask my plumber Jez, to put in a plumbing system into your house, he will ask you some very pertinent questions first..

He will ask, how many bathrooms will the house have and where are their situated, do you need radiators or under floor heating, are you sure you want a power shower on the top floor of your house,  do you need to run a garden hose.

These are, if  your are following the metaphor, the applications that will use the SDI..

What Jez would not do is just go ahead and lay 150m of  Hep2o 22mm water pipes around your house, install a Taco circulating pump, and connect all to a tanker full of Evian water outside your house, and then leave you without fitting any fixtures!

OK so this metaphor is a little facetious, but it can be extended, how about connecting my and my neighbours houses plumbing together to create a regional SDI… the point is that an infrastructure developed in isolation to it use runs the major risk of not meeting the users needs.

My second point and this is an important one also, is that we are beginning to see many applications outside of the SDI community really adopt the “cloud computing” model, where in addition to local repositories of data used to build and maintain data, data itself is published to the cloud and makes use of the robust and scaleable infrastructure that commercial operators like Amazon and Google and even ESRI are making available.

This type of architecture is perfect for deploying SDI’s as it has the potential to scale with need, Information is my design easy to find and share, and of course it’s cheap !

Written and submitted from home, using my home 802.11 network.

Footnote : Still unsure of what an SDI is, read the SDI cookbook


  1. ChrisW

    Good point about the absence of user perspectives on all this, and the point about “plumbing” geodata to the consumer is well-made. But when you say that Google et al “would be happy to host data on behalf of public sector bodies”, you’re straight back to the widespread problem of who owns “public” data in the UK.

    Having spoken to some public sector GIS users recently, there still seems to be a lot of FUD (often encouraged by your former employers at the OS) surrounding the question of who owns OS data when it is mixed with Google data or even just passed through a Google mapping tool. People are often ignorant and suspicious about the extent to which they “own” their own data or whether they may infringe draconian OS licences simply by using the term “Google” in the near vicinity of their spatial applications, and some believe that Google is out to claim ownership of their data. Ironically, it seems the OS tacitly encourages this belief, even while asserting its own rights over “derived” spatial data.

    Until there is greater clarity (and sense) around the licencing of “public” spatial data in the UK, I can’t see many public sector organisations feeling brave enough to hand their data over for 3rd party hosting, least of all to Google.

  2. Ewan

    Interestinng observation around the demographic of the people attending the conference. There does seem to be plenty of discussion from within the “GI Community” but little engagement from those who would get real benefits from an SDI approach. I have recently undertaken an exercise to scope out an SDI, rather than looking at the technology the focus was very much on the people and process side. After all, the technology is all avaliable, the trick is finding out requirements and getting “users” to change their behaviour and interact with an SDI, even if they dont now that. We actually found that some SDI components already existed and just needed a small tweak. In some ways I think the term SDI is mis-leading and hard to explain exactly what it is.

  3. Peter Barnes

    Two timely and well made points. There has been a bit of disucussion around who or what neogeos are of late, and your post highlights a couple of the major philosophical differences. I believe the first key differentiator is a strong customer and solution focus vs data and technology, the second an openness to web 2.0 concepts and an allied willingness to generate and use data and services with long and complex genealogy. I’m not suggesting that neogeos aren’t interested in data and technology, it’s that they regard them as the means to an end – solving a problem for real world citizens. Cloud computing and the various tools offered by Google, Microsoft, Cloudmade etc. are extremely useful tools for achieving this goal, and significantly provide a low cost of entry route for innovation.

  4. Antony Scott

    I was at the session too, and found the water metaphor interesting, like all good metaphors it got me thinking about how far it could be stretched. My frustrations at the moment are around the range of data formats, standards and practices requiring converters before you can use them, and sources which make it impossible for you to get anything useful out of them by restricting you to one drip at a time! That’s probably far enough, but there’s clearly a need to open the flood gates (sorry!) and get more stuff in the cloud. Although I came away from the conference not being very much clearer about what an SDI was, I know that the ‘D’ata needs as much attention as the rest if we are to be able to get (as per last comment) innovation and useful services.

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