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thumbnail_EuropeThe term Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) is described in Nebert’s SDI Cookbook as “the relevant base collection of technologies, policies and institutional arrangements that facilitate the availability of and access to spatial data.” [1] These infrastructures provide a basis for the evaluation and application of spatial data for users and providers across all sectors, including the general public. But is the IT community prepared for SDI?

By creating such an infrastructure, organisations can create a single repository for accurate and up-to-date geographic data and metadata. From that repository, the data can be accessed, visualised and evaluated by appropriate users, and it is commonly referred to it as a ‘single source of truth’.

This article will examine the challenge faced by IT companies, primarily the data administrators for most organisations, of adapting their attitudes towards the storage, management and security of spatial data if they are to comply with moves towards the adoption of SDIs and the creation of a ‘single source of truth’.

{sidebar id=50} In 2007, the GI industry in Europe witnessed a surge in SDI activity, driven by a key milestone; on 15th May, Directive  2007/2/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 March 2007 establishing an Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE), came into force. INSPIRE asserts that spatial data should be collected only once, re-used and made available locally and globally via on-demand web services, i.e. through a structure such as an SDI.

A vast amount of information relating to the business rules that govern spatial datasets in Europe (and elsewhere) already exists, and one of the aims of INSPIRE is to maximise re-use of this data. Existing spatial data has accumulated across the public sector (and other areas) in the last 15-20 years and the information relating to these datasets is typically stored in a number of disparate sources which are scattered across organisations.

As yet, there is little evidence that INSPIRE is going to change this situation. In fact, there are indicators which suggest that the GI industry in Europe doesn’t fully appreciate the re-use concept; for example, funding within the eContentplus programme for spatial data was under-utilised in 2005, from a total of 34 proposals only 3 received funding. This highlights either poor proposals or possibly a mismatch or misunderstanding of the eContentplus programme and how to effectively re-use spatial data already in existence in Europe within the scope of the programme.

As the custodians and managers of data, the IT community is now faced with the challenge of creating benefit-rich SDIs to satisfy the requirements of INSPIRE. The ability to define, implement and use an SDI as a ‘single source of truth’ should be within the grasp of any organisation with a mainstream IT infrastructure. It is easy to simply prescribe that an organisation will have an SDI in place, that spatial data should no longer be treated as ‘special’, but should be stored, managed and maintained alongside ‘regular’ data, and that all employees, stakeholders and/or partner organisations will have access to accurate, high quality information. However, in practical terms, there are many obstacles to negotiate.

Security is a primary concern for SDIs and has produced the need for a change in philosophy for IT companies accustomed to creating separate, and often bespoke, security systems for different data sources. Other potential problems, such as access to spatial data and access rights, performance, and governance must be addressed in line with the overall SDI data management strategy.

{sidebar id=51} There appears to be a sense of curious anticipation as organisations monitor who is making early moves towards INSPIRE-compliant SDIs. Some have begun to tackle the development of SDIs through pioneering projects, such as the Fujitsu, ESRI and 1Spatial development of the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland (OSNI®) GeoHub – GeoHub NI™. OSNI is developing the system on behalf of the stakeholders of the GI Strategy for Northern Ireland. GeoHub NI provides a central location for the geographic information of Northern Ireland, and promotes and encourages the use of this information.

From a monetary perspective, GeoHub NI limits the need for investment in entry level GIS and reduces the cost of physically distributing data via the availability of cross-departmental geographic information. It also provides a repository for data and associated metadata, that once stored can be used many times over, improving data management across the organisation. GeoHub NI features an administration site for spatial data loading, digital rights management for secure access and the ability to access datasets remotely. It is fair to assume that this project will prove to be a milestone; a benchmark for other government organisations looking to develop and benefit from their own systems as it has underlined some of the issues mentioned above.

It is important to recognise that an SDI is about more than creating and visualising maps, or even creating geoportals; these are just some elements of the SDI. Essentially, SDIs must go beyond data sharing to ensure that data access and data quality enable the right people to see the right data as it is requested. In the OSNI GeoHub programme, members of the community do not need to have their own GIS; they can use GeoHub NI’s facilities which are based on Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) compliant technologies for Web Mapping Services (WMS), Web Feature Services (WFS), and Web Registry (cataloging) Services, with an emphasis on metadata standards, management and storage of spatial data.

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The OSNI programme has highlighted pragmatic issues surrounding the design and implementation of SDIs, for example that a web services environment presents new challenges for organisations, as their data forms part of a centrally and neutrally controlled configuration. Some organisations may also be unfamiliar with the technology required to make OGC services more secure, or to integrate them with mainstream IT, so they may need assistance when it comes to building such infrastructures and ensuring suitable security.

The need to ensure appropriate data access has highlighted that organisations need to distinguish between users and their roles, i.e. the difference between working out who a user is (authentication) and what the user can do (authorisation). The nature of the SDI as a vast source of information means that it is no longer appropriate to manage access rights for individual users; many users need to be immediately identified in roles as they access the SDI. A council tax payer in the {sidebar id=53} Belfast City region, for example, must be automatically identified and given appropriate data access. Access to data via membership allows security to be controlled and managed much more effectively.

As with any initiative involving data, security is a key SDI consideration where many different parties can access the data. To  tackle the basic issues a mainstream approach to security is required, i.e. spatial data must be integrated with the existing IT solutions and not given standalone security. In the light of this, it is clear that a standards-based approach is required as opposed to the current, in-house methods being used by most IT organisations. To achieve this, the IT community must improve its knowledge of standards, such as those recommended by ISO [2] and the OGC [3] and adopt them wherever possible. Organisations just about to enter the SDI market should be prepared to watch for further movement, development and improvement of these standards.

Spatial data is becoming increasingly valuable [4] and as a result, greater access is sought and usage is growing. Therefore, it is more important than ever for the IT community to focus on new ways of dealing with security and access. The philosophy of having separate security entities for spatial data emphasises the stigma that spatial data are ‘special’ and therefore require separate treatment, and is reinforced by current, out-of-the box products. These products are not the answer for the future since they are only designed to secure the spatial data elements within the SDI. Organisations and IT specialists need to embrace technologies and open standards, such as those from ISO and the OGC, or the vision of SDIs and their benefits, as pioneered by the INSPIRE Directive in Europe will not be fully realised.

Latest news and opinion from – 1Spatial.


[1] Nebert, D.D., ed., 2004. Developing Spatial Data Infrastructures: The SDI Cookbook. Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association, ver. 2.0, 25th January 2004, (accessed 2.1.08)



[4] OXERA was commissioned by Ordnance Survey Great Britain (OSGB) to estimate the value of the economic infrastructure ‘built on’ OSGB data. It was estimated that even 10 years ago, OSGB products and services contributed to 12-20% of gross value added (GVA). This amounted to £79-£136 billion worth of GVA in Great Britain.




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