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GeoWeb and Survival Part II – Towards Environmental Security

In our previous note, GeoWeb and Survival, we looked at the importance of managing the environment on natural zone boundaries rather than in terms of the political units that exist today. Of course it is highly unlikely that we will in the proximate future actually alter the existing political boundaries. Even if we did, such a move would be insufficient because the zones of natural management overlap one another and often in complex ways. Hence we need a way to acquire information on a natural management zone basis while at the same time retaining our existing political infrastructure.

I agree that this is only half the story, since to act effectively we must also modify the interaction of the political institutions so that they can react in the appropriate fashion to the information views organized on the basis of natural management zones. This second and vital component of the response we will have to leave to others, noting that without the unified information view such a new direction for the management response is both unlikely and unworkable.

It should be mentioned in passing that we have in effect two notions of GeoWeb in this discussion. The first in the information GeoWeb that is the subject of this blog. The second is that of the “web of life” that natural scientists and system thinkers have embraced for a very long time. Since the natural processes are by definition distributed over the surface of the earth, it is no stretch to think of this as also a GeoWeb. It is the fusion of these concepts of GeoWeb that is at the heart of the current discussion.

So how can the GeoWeb (information technology) help us to deal with the GeoWeb(natural systems and the environment)?

One of the difficulties that we face in moving to management based on natural zones is the misalignment of information boundaries. As we have already noted existing information boundaries are based on more or less arbitrary political units defined by nation states and subdivided into states, provinces, counties, communities, cities and municipalities. In fact there is a myriad of such boundaries which overlap one another in a completely arbitrary fashion. None of this is likely to change.

The way forward is to put in place Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDI) that provide transparent access to the information managed by these politically defined jurisdictions. Applications for analysis, mapping, display, and other forms of decision support can then be constructed on top of the SDI layer thus providing the applications for negotiation and management in the natural management zone.

Now I did not say that this is an easy task. Different jurisdictions means different vendor technologies are used. It also means that the world is modeled in different ways with only a rough correspondence between the entities of one jurisdiction and those of another. Furthermore, the jurisdictions possess the expertise to actual create, document and manage their part of the information. They are the stewards or custodians of that information and this must be respected if we are to have any hope that the information we are sharing is accurate and current. Finally, we must note that bringing disparate information sources together will reveal not only intrinsic errors within the individual data components, but conflicts also between the one component and another.

Any solution to these problems is only going to be approximate at best, but this is still miles ahead of moving forward with out any information or with information which is very incomplete or very out of date.

Existing SDI technology can go a long way to addressing these problems.

GML can provide a common schema language by which information providers can expose their information models to one another and so do in the context of the Internet. Furthermore such models can readily be maintained and shared as they change in one jurisdiction or another. The mere fact of sharing these models can lead to changes and to important integration of concepts and vocabulary. When I see that your street is the same as my road, either one of us can change or we can provide the appropriate automated mapping tools to transform requests and data from one system to the other. In the not too distant future technologies such as OWL will allow us to define the underlying objects (“what is a lake?”) in a machine readable form thus enabling such mappings to be defined by computer assisted techniques, and possibly completely automated ones in the farther future.

Web Feature Services (WFS) can provide the necessary movement of data and can do in a transparent manner possibly exploiting the schema-based data transformations referenced above. Furthermore, advanced WFS can also apply on-the-fly data integrity checks to provide assurance that data meets the required "community" data quality standards. Furthermore this can be done in an open and transparent fashion.

Web Registry Services (WRS) can be used to “register” the members of the community – i.e. the set of data providers and processing services that make up a given natural management zone and can enable automated (machine driven) access to information resources distributed on the various WFS. Furthermore, the WRS can manage projects and other activities managed by the multiple jurisdictions (multiple agencies) that interact within the management zone.

In effect, SDI technology provides the foundation layer to create a virtual (or realized) information base that underpins the decision support applications on which management of natural zone will depend. Different government agencies can thus more readily co-operate (and negotiate) on how the zone is to be managed. Moreover such an infrastructure can be deployed in a such a way as to survive the enumerable re-organizations that government agencies and large corporations are heir to.

By providing this information base without upsetting the existing apple cart of political and administrative authorities we may find a way forward to manage our interaction with the world in a saner manner than is possible today. Perhaps this arcane world of XML and Web Services may make a not insignificant contribution to our long term survival.