SDI Thoughts

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

Google Maps SDI Thoughts

Richmond Maps nearly everything…

Its great to see my own local authority making great use of Google Maps, as pointed out  by the Mapperz team , Richmond Council have produced a series of maps using Google Maps to illustrate most of their local services, including a pet subject of mine Recycling sites


There is much to be said for a very simple approach like this, the maps are straight forward and communicate a single type of service each, and therefore are simple to use.

Behind the scenes the locations could also be  indexed and become part of the ever increasing geoweb discovered by other websites and services, remember key to the success of the web is the ability to consume information via different channels. 

Such an approach also illustrates the potential for developing a UK Spatial Data Infrastructure from the ground up, at least one focused at the needs of citizen in contrast to the more formal approach developing SDI’s for professional use.

The next step would be for Richmond to publish these points of interest as a feed (KML/GeoRSS), so they would be more easily accessible to anyone wanting to integrate local services in to their own applications. But for the residents of Richmond having this information easily accessible in this way is an important step forward..

Well done Richmond !!

Written and submitted from the Google Office, London.


AfricaMap – GSDI 2.0 ?

As highlighted by Keir on the excellent Google Maps Mania last week,  AfricaMap is an interesting  attempt to build a repository of geospatial data about Africa, developed by the Center for Geographic analysis at Harvard University.


Map of Africa
Map of Africa

What is interesting about this site, is both the scope of the project and the approach taken.

From decades many individuals, groups and organisations have been trying to develop Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDI) at a regional or global level (GSDI), with it must be said very limited success so far.

Unlike many previous attempts at developing a portal to a regional SDI, Africamap tries to hide as much complexity as possible from the user just presenting a map display and a search tool – Great start after-all I would argue that more than anything else a SDI is really just an example of a vertical search application.

But no.. You have been mislead dear user, just searching for something like “Sudan Population” or Nile Delta won’t give you any results – you need to select which maps layers (data-sets) you need to search first. This is not unusual in SDI implementations, but it would be like having to tell a generic web search tool, which websites the information you are looking for can be would.

This approach is, I believe, the result of a culture of system design that is dominated by data providers, not users. The user interface here has been influenced I’m sure by the creation of the metadata that  SDI convention states is always the first step in building an SDI.

It’s not that the data is not available, it’s just that the approach taken so far by the SDI community makes its inaccessible to almost anyone other than the original data provider or someone who has the time to work out which map layers should be searched.

So some may argue, this and similar sites are designed for specialised users, who have intimate knowledge of this type of data and how it is structured, even so there is no reason to make access to this more difficult than it needs to be..

OK rant over, from a technology and tools point of view Africmap demonstrates what is possible now with a freely available web tools and open standards based geospatial services, and without doubt the team at Harvard should be congratulated for doing the hard back office work to provide access to all this important information from one place.

This is not yet GSDI 2.0 then, but GSDI 1.5 and a pointer to the direction which ultimately may finally deliver on the GSDI vision.

To understand more about the efforts to create a GSDI, visit the GSDI conference this year in collaboration with the EC’s third INSPIRE conference in Rotterdam in June.

Written and submitted from the Google Office, London.