For many years individual regional organisations have independently created and maintained models of their areas of responsibility in order to support their core activities. Over 90% of data for organisations such as utilities, local government, emergency services and other regional agencies relates to a spatial location, and geographic information systems are now becoming central to most IT infrastructures.
Regional organisations in the United Kingdom are now required to share their data effectively in a variety of scenarios, with the data being used for both planning and operational aspects. Recent national legislation such as the Civil Contingency Bill and the Traffic Management Act (TMA) has provided an added impetus for authorities to make their data available in a transparent and interoperable environment.
With this in mind, the NERVE (North East Regional Visualisation Environment) project was instigated, part funded by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) under its Technology Programme. Its aim was to research methods of allowing regional organisations to share information in a variety of scenarios, in order to meet the demands of recent legislation (as above) and initiatives such as INSPIRE and the Digital National Framework (DNF).
The two-year NERVE project, completed this year, was based on potential scenarios that could arise in the North East of England, including the following:
— Regional resilience – coordination of emergency planning activities on a wider geographic scale
— Emergency incident response – sharing detailed spatial information related to risks and resources in real time
— Streetworks coordination – providing Traffic Managers and Planners with a shared view of streetworks activity and sensitive streets
These scenarios led to the development of a prototype system that demonstrated the generation of a centralised, web-service based datastore, taking geospatial data from a number of disparate datastores and displaying this data on an interactive client. This data comprised of a mix of static 2 and 3 dimensional data, as well as data changing in real-time (geo-located sensor based data).
The project was undertaken by a consortium comprising both commercial and academic partners (1Spatial, Newcastle University, Imass and Ordnance Survey Great Britain). The commercial partners have first hand experience of the market problems and opportunities, and by using the research capabilities and expertise of the University, planned to produce an architecture to support the production of future leading edge, robust, commercial applications for the Emergency Services and Utilities sectors.
The main project prototype was built around the scenario of an emergency situation. Operatives both in the field and in the office need immediate access to relevant spatial and non-spatial data to develop strategies for the prevention of an escalation in the situation resulting in further damage, casualties or fatalities.
In a situation where, for example, there was a threat of an explosion from a factory, several sources of information would immediately be needed; types of roads surrounding the area, density of population/housing, location of schools (including type of school, number of pupils), if any vulnerable people are housed in the area (e.g. sheltered accommodation), potentially flammable objects or buildings containing hazardous material, location of hospitals and emergency services to name but a few.
All this information needs to be analysed together so that decisions can be made quickly and effectively, however this in itself raised the project team’s first issue; all of this information is normally held by different organisations in remote locations. Although these existing data sources fulfilled the requirements of the end users they were originally developed for, they were typically not suited for access and use outside their initial application or user domain. One of the main challenges of the project was bringing together these data sources in a way that they could be used together and for a common purpose. Three further problems emerged:
(a) Identifying the sources of data available to the end user
(b) Accessing this data quickly, and then;
(c) Analysing the data effectively
Solutions to these issues were reached, and a fascinating and exciting end prototype produced. So how did the NERVE project team collect together disparate sources of data in different formats, make them accessible to key personnel (in the office and out in the field), whilst simultaneously maximising efficiency and performance? The key to the team’s achievement lay within the adoption of open standards (OGC web services using BPEL in a Service Orientated Architecture) and the abandonment of the traditional two-layer data/application approach for an innovative three-tier structure. Read more about how this was achieved, the technicalities behind the project and the importance of the prototype to the future of spatial data in the forthcoming second part of this article.