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Jeff Thurston — “Some people wish for a global GPS network operated by a UN type global agency. But is that necessary? Likely not. At the end of the day all that matters is high quality data, and for that data to be available to GSDI. Whether there is one or ten operating GPS systems does not matter as much as the availability of the right data, from the right places which is suitable for GSDI needs.”

Matt Ball — “The question of global cooperation and coordination of geospatial efforts is an important one. There are many fronts where global cooperation is necessary, including navigation and positioning tools, data sharing, and monitoring. Our world is a seamless place with only our own fabricated political boundaries, and the management of our impact on the planet must take a holistic and boundary-free approach if we’re going to continue to enhance our collective standard of living.”

This column is sponsored by www.esri.com
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A satellite-based navigation and positioning system (GPS) is a primary requirement today for many geospatial initiatives to be realised. The global spatial data infrastructure (GSDI) will evolve through technology, knowledge and governance. While governments may fear a degraded GPS signal in the future, past history suggests otherwise – and other government collaboration issues are more of an issue. Nevertheless, GSDI is a data-centric initiative and depends upon available and dependable data that can be used for global purposes.

This question was prompted by a recent CNN feature about the European GALILEO program. Earlier GALILEO was reported on here, here and here within this blog.

At the current time the American NAVSTAR GPS is the only fully functional operating satellite positioning and navigation system available. The system has operated continuously, and dependably – and freely – for international use since the mid-1980’s. A military operated and supported system, NAVSTAR previously included error timing into the system, but that has since been removed and most people can acquire 15m or better accuracy on the ground with standard GPS receiver’s – better accuracy is possible.

The Russian GLONASS GPS was announced in the early 1980’s, however the system has never been fully operational. Indeed, there have been recent problems with the rockets used to launch GLONASS satellites. Nevertheless, India has indicated that it is interested to pursue a connection to the GLONASS system once built. There are manufacturer’s who are building combined GPS+GLONASS receivers. The truly adventurous can even build their own dual frequency receiver together.

GALILEO is Europe’s entry into the field of satellite-based positioning and navigation. There have been lots of debates about funding and operating the system. To keep a long story short: GALILEO was approved by the European Commission last fall and will be funded by Brussels. There are manufacturer’s building combined or dual frequency GPS + GALILEO receiver’s as well.

The concept of a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) originates from the idea of having a global coverage through GPS, although we often think of GNSS as a combining of GPS systems into larger systems so that all the satellites are working together in some way, shape or form. In principle we may think of the individual systems as one, but they would be working in an interoperable way – just as we think of GIS / CAD software and data.  ~

The principle of global GPS coverage is an important point because any GSDI will be global in nature, requiring accurate locations around the globe.

In the late 1950’s the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) was formed between the US and Canada who shared responsibility for joint operations.  In principle, GALILEO is similar to NORAD, since the members of the European Union would be sharing in the operation and responsibility of the system.  For NORAD to work, a high level of transparency is present, both country’s are involved in its operation and both country’s benefit from it. Similarly, GALILEO would allow individual European country’s to develop and integrate joint positioning and navigation within the Europe, and to develop trans-boundary initiatives.

The last point is important because it means geospatial technology and knowledge would be embedded deeper into society and the supporting infrastructure, including emergency operations, military and so on – all of which require or demand continuous and untinterrupted GPS services. The NAVSTAR system does not guarantee that level of assurance, since it can have the signal degraded once again if the military so chooses – for whatever reason. This lack of assurance is a major point of contention for GALILEO supporters. Would you base your emergency services and other infrastructure on a system outside your control – or at least participation? This is the issue.

But it raises other issues with respect to GSDI and other SDI initiatives because we clearly need to integrate these data for them to be useful. Strategically this means either the data must be accessible, and or the receivers must be dual frequency to meet world variation in users choice – India with GLONASS, for example.

But it also adds more complexity into the processing of GNSS receiver data and operations. Alternatively, the benefits of a dual frequency receiver within a virtual GPS network for sustainability and other infrastructure operations could be significant.

Some people wish for a global GPS network operated by a UN type global agency. But is that necessary? Likely not. At the end of the day all that matters is high quality data, and for that data to be available to GSDI. Whether there is one or ten operating GPS systems does not matter as much as the availability of the right data, from the right places which is suitable for GSDI needs.

I’m grateful to the US taxpayer who has paid for the GPS the rest of the world receives today. It has probably put geospatial into a more mainstream position than all the virtual worlds combined – more than any other geotechnology. We need to give credit where credit is due. The US government has operated GPS excellently for more than three decades. Many European, Asian and Australian company’s have built businesses based on NAVSTAR.

A more strategic requirement for GSDI is centered around data availability and harmonisation of models and their implementation. In some ways, this explains why INSPIRE is tracking closley to the SDI direction and why GALILEO coupled to INSPIRE could render several benefits.

Having said that, if I had a choice, I would choose a NAVSTAR enabled dual frequency GNSS receiver in all likelihood. Potentially, there are great benefits to be seen from this combination and a wider GNSS constellation could put 100 satellites within the palm of my hand.

 

The question of global cooperation and coordination of geospatial efforts is an important one. There are many fronts where global cooperation is necessary, including navigation and positioning tools, data sharing, and monitoring. Our world is a seamless place with only our own fabricated political boundaries, and the management of our impact on the planet must take a holistic and boundary-free approach if we’re going to continue to enhance our collective standard of living.

Unfortunately, political and economic pressures are at play that can make it difficult to come together on global issues. Some of the barriers to intergovernmental collaboration will never be resolved, others will take a great degree of creativity, persistence, and perhaps even coercion. Cross-governmental geospatial advances will likely happen on the commercial side of the business much more readily than on the government side, but there’s reason for optimism that our leaders are beginning to “get it.”

Position, Navigation and Measurement
The predominant Global Positioning System, NAVSTAR, is owned, controlled and maintained by the U.S. government and operated by the U.S. Air Force. This constellation of satellites provide signals to ground-based receivers that translate the inputs into an accurate position and precise time. This signal was originally scrambled with something called Selective Availability (SA), that degraded the signal to civilian-owned devices to 100-meter accuracy where military devices were fed position of 10 meters or less. Ever since SA was turned off in May of 2000, the system has gained broader use and acceptance for a myriad of consumer purposes due to much greater positional accuracy and reliability. Yet, the military hold on the system means that there’s a possibility that some control could be taken back.

This alignment of the GPS system with military oversight means that there will be continued spending from other governments due to security concerns. Even though the system does an adequate and increasingly better job of delivering position as the satellites are maintained and updated. The European Union now controls the Galileo GPS system, having taken control from a partnership of private companies in 2007. The Galileo system is complementary to the U.S.-owned NAVSTAR system and the Russian GLONASS system, but has promised greater accuracy.

The billions of dollars that are being spent on a redundant system do seem out of alignment with the benefits. There have been calls in the past for the privatization of the U.S.-based GPS system, which could greatly allay the fears. There’s more benefit to civilians from the GPS system than for military purpose, but I doubt that this argument could be turned into much of a debate given the current geopolitical climate.

Data Sharing
I recently spoke with Harlan Onsrud, executive director of the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association, and specifically questioned him about the idea behind GSDI. Harlan concurred with my own sentiment that it’s hard to think of global SDI, when we have trouble coordinating a national effort, with many of our states unable to combine county data, and some countries without even paper maps. After his first GSDI meeting, he was sold on the benefits of collaboration and resource sharing, feeling that the lofty goal of global data coordination is a worthy cause.

The integration and collaboration of global data sets from individual nations will take decades to realize, but the existence of the association means that incremental work will be done to establishing connections between countries and foster best practices on data collection and management. Harlan indicated that there’s often good exchange of data between these groups, and there’s also great opportunity for hosting. He indicated that in developing countries there might be the ability to collect data but often not enough reliable electricity and Internet connectivity in order to share it with the rest of the world.

The idea of a global GSDI will be an increasingly important one, but again some countries view this information as a military sensitivity. The existence of global geobrowsers have gone a long way to dispelling these types of security issues with their increasing global data coverage with ever-greater accuracy.

GSDI is an important objective yet it’s not that imperative for the betterment of our planet as a whole. There are very many earth observation platforms and data sets that give us a global picture, that the headaches of getting all the countries to share their data in a common way in a common format doesn’t seem that compelling of an aim. Certainly it would be nice to ensure that all countries are adequately mapped in order for each to gain the benefit of geospatial insight, but a global coordinated data set is a long way away.

Monitoring
The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is hard at work on the Global Earth Observation System of Systems for the global monitoring of natural disasters and the environment. This goal, with the common objective of observing and protecting against the fickle pressures of mother nature, is gaining great momentum as it now consists of 75 member countries. The international collaboration toward a system of systems means a loosely coupled alliance of monitoring devices that will speak to each other to provide Earth observations on the themes of disasters, health, energy, water, weather, ecosystems, agriculture and biodiversity.

I believe the GEOSS effort has the greatest promise, both from the benefits as well as the possibility of actually fostering global collaboration, investment and action. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, believes in the system, calling it an “amber alert for the planet.” And an increasing number of nations are signing on to be a part of this global monitoring plan.

There’s a 10-Year Implementation Plan with details on the purpose and scope of the system as well as implementation and governance structure. The equal voting of all members in a central yearly meeting where all members have the same vote, makes consensus necessary. The collaboration on system design, architecture, science and technology means that the system can immediately have an impact. The sharing of capacity for information gathering and reporting also means that the science won’t suffer in countries that may not have the scientific resources to match other states.

Global collaboration is definitely a possibility, with great rewards for all of us. There’s too much competition in the world to think that this collaboration can be accomplished for all global goals, but it’s nice to know that we’re united in the goal to better our planet so that we may all live longer upon it.

 

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