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Economic Recovery and the GeoWeb

A great deal has been written and voiced about the need to invest in infrastructure to stimulate the economy and provide employment.  More recently, this infrastructure stimulus has been broadened to include investment in Information Technology.  In the United States, ESRI and Booze-Allen have teamed up to write a paper entitled the "National GIS", implying that investment in GIS is also good for the economy.  In this paper, I will argue that such a GIS perspective is a bit too narrow and that investment in information infrastructures, ones that can make the investment in physical infrastructure more effective (see Infrastructure for Infrastructure [1]) and which can provide the foundations for our environmental response, is both more responsible and more likely to have a greater economic and social impact than a National GIS.

What do we mean by GeoWeb?

Most SDI initiatives in the world are initiatives of National Governments, typically being led by their national mapping agency.  This is true in the United States (NSDI, National Map led by USGS), in Canada (CGDI led by GeoConnections), in Malaysia (MyGDI, National Mapping Agency), and in most other countries throughout the world. In almost all cases, the penetration to the regional and local level has been fairly minimal.  This is in spite of the fact that the national agencies typically possess only small scale data (1:50,000 and larger), which is of limited economic impact and provides a very small portion of the data and services required to deal with key cross-jurisdictional issues such as security, emergency response, urban and associated infrastructure development, resource development, energy security, and environmental protection.  This is not intended as any sort of criticism of the national governments, as these matters have been dictated largely by political issues, it is simply a fact that a more bottom up approach is required.

The fact that SDI has been led mainly by national mapping agencies has also had an impact on the concept (i.e. "What is SDI?") and on the technologies and standards required to support that concept.  While there has been some evolution, the original concept for SDI was very much that of a data library, with the SDI technology focused on providing capabilities for discovery and then, more recently, for data access.  The overwhelming majority of SDI implementations to date are of this type.  Furthermore, where there has been development of an SDI at a regional level (e.g. Provincial or State Governments), these have also tended to focus on this "library" model.  Pan-national SDI initiatives, mainly led by the European INSPIRE, have also tended to follow a similar track.

The concept of SDI that we are considering (and which I refer to as "GeoWeb") is that of a business process integration infrastructure that supports a wide variety of data types including, in particular, vector GIS and CAD data, Building Information Models (BIM), imagery, and real time sensor data. Such an SDI would enable business processes in the private sector and government to be integrated, and this integration would enable not only quantum jumps in efficiency, data quality and currency, but would give rise to very material changes in how we govern our society.

Clearly such an infrastructure goes beyond conventional concepts of SDI.  On the other hand such an SDI concept can clearly be realized using many of the same standards that have been developed within the OASIS, OGC, ISO TC/211, and the W3C, including XML, GML, KML, WFS, WMS/FPS, WRS, ebRIM etc.   What is required is more strategic view of the importance of such an infrastructure, and this I believe has in turn an impact on the relative importance of these standards.  It will also mean that some of these standards will need to be revised or enhanced in specific areas. One thinks in particular with respect to the encoding of coverage data (including imagery).  GML offers a minimalist approach to encoding this type of data, and thus far the requisite "extensions" required to support a broad range of image types have not appeared and been standardized.  At the same time, work on services such as the WCS (Web Coverage Service), have tended to encourage a continued proliferation of encoding standards.

For non-technical people, the most important thing is to think of the infrastructure as  a permanent thing, just like physical objects or the Internet itself.  Such a permanent infrastructure must be based on standards, and readily enable participant organizations to "plug-in" and interact with other organizations.  Note that the infrastructure does not itself provide the applications for regulation, analysis, design, etc.  The infrastructure is about connectivity and collaboration, and provides a layer over the existing Internet.

Investing in the GeoWeb

Investment in the GeoWeb does not mean investment in the traditional concept of SDI, but rather SDI in terms of business process integration and active collaboration.  SDI that embraces a broad range of data types including, of course, conventional GIS, but also CAD/BIM data, imagery, and real time sensor data.  Investment in SDI provides for permanent infrastructures at the local, regional, and national level, that directly support other investment initiatives by enabling real time collaboration between developers, architects, engineers, city planners, and regulatory bodies, and which, at the same, time lays the information foundation for use of infrastructure information for public safety, security, and future planning and development.  Such investment will have far reaching impacts leading not only on the costs of data collection but, more importantly, to enormous cost savings through better engineering, greater public transparency, increased public safety, reduced energy costs, and a host of other environmental benefits.

One of the cornerstones of the economic stimulus packages being touted by countries around the world has been the investment infrastructure.  For most people, this has meant investments in physical infrastructure, especially roads, highways, bridges, and buildings.  Even where people have begun to talk about IT infrastructure, most of the thinking has been about faster fibre, more fibre and fibre connections, and deployments of computing clouds, i.e. investment in the bricks and mortar equivalent for information technology.  While this is no doubt required, I believe that there is another opportunity for IT investment that will have far larger economic impacts and will place us in a far better position to deal with the looming issues of environmental and energy security, and that is investment in information infrastructures, specifically those that can support geographic information including CAD, conventional GIS, imagery, and real time sensor data.  Such infrastructures can provide the foundation for planning, design, and collaboration for the creation, construction, and management of that other physical infrastructure, and make expenditures in the construct domain vastly more efficient and effective.  At the same, providing permanent information infrastructures means that information obtained in the course of design and construction is subsequently available for a host of operational and management activities such as public safety (fire, police, ambulance), security, and, of course, future remediation of the physical infrastructure.  This helps ensure that all of this critical information is secure, and as accurate and current as possible.

I believe that this is the true next generation of the Internet – the GeoWeb – in which we move above the current level of information abstraction and use the Internet to integrate the business processes that build, regulate, and manage our society.  This is true eGovernment and a true eSociety.  Just as critical physical IT infrastructure investments like Canary, and the earlier Darpa, enabled us to have our modern Internet, investments in the new Internet – the GeoWeb – will lead us to an entirely new level.

A key aspect of our view of GeoWeb is the ability to support collaboration.  Consider the development of a major highway as just one example of how this might work in practice.  Such a project could easily cost $1 billion dollars or more.  It will likely include routing studies (where should we build the highway?) with related cost estimates, environmental impacts, and transportation benefits, the actual highway design, construction, and operation.  In addition to the roadway itself, such a project would in most areas also require the construction of bridges, overpasses, and supporting infrastructure for water, electricity and communications.  Moreover it may also require the reconstruction or displacement of existing infrastructure including power lines, waterways, residential and commercial buildings.  Even a modest scale project will involve the interaction of hundreds of organizations and directly impact the lives of thousands or tens of thousands of people.  When one factors in the usage and payment for the infrastructure, the impact will then involve millions of people.

To support collaboration, does not mean that the GeoWeb provides the interactive design tools or regulatory applications.  It does mean that through the GeoWeb we can expect to find a representation of the project (Highway Development), and be able to access all of the subprojects (e.g. environmental studies, cost estimates, engineering computations, design files) that comprise it. Through the SDI a highway engineer can directly access the traffic and routing studies, not simply as text documents, but in a machine readable fashion that can be immediately used by their design and analysis applications.  In addition collaboration means that the GeoWeb maintains the state of the project, and that this can be shared with all of the authorized participants.

Benefits of Investment in GeoWeb

The most direct and immediate benefit of investing in GeoWeb are the efficiency gains obtained in the management and execution of major capital infrastructure projects.  Such efficiencies are realized through faster turnaround on regulatory issues, fewer design mistakes, and a significant reduction in "fit and interference" problems in the field.

In addition to these direct benefits, the GeoWeb investment will lead to many others, including:

The GeoWeb – Community to Global

It is our view that an investment in the GeoWeb has to start with specific initiatives directly related to major capital projects such as a major highway, retrofitting of major buildings for energy conservation and the like.  This means that there will likely be many such infrastructures being built more or less in parallel with one another, each serving a specific community of interest.  It is thus critical that each such infrastructure (SDI) that is developed be conformant to the same underlying standards.  Only in this way we will enable our community of communities to be constructed, and facilitate the growth of the GeoWeb on a national and global scale.

National governments can play a significant role here.  Major capital projects will depend critically on capital in the near future, and national governments will have a direct role in providing that capital.  They thus have a powerful lever, not only to require the design and deployment of the supporting information infrastructure(s), but also to ensure that each such project means the requirements of the common standards.

As the GeoWeb information infrastructures are developed, the incremental cost of new information infrastructure deployment will decrease, and the value per dollar invested will grow substantially.  This means that cost of GeoWeb investment will decline, while the benefits through cost savings and better management of the physical infrastructure investments continues to increase.

I believe this is a major opportunity for our societies to more directly and fully automate the functioning of our society – leading to better transparency and accountability – and contributing to a more robust and sustainable economy.