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From V1: What are the differences between North American and European geospatial initiatives and approaches?

(Dec 2008) Source Vector 1 Media. Articles by Jeff Thurston and Matt Ball

jeff Thurston

There are both similarities and differences between North American and European geospatial initiatives and approaches. Europe consists of 27 EU member states as well as several non-member states as compared to Mexico, United States and Canada. Europeans appear more coordinated in their geospatial approaches, the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe (INSPIRE), EuroGeographics, European Space Agency (ESA), Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) and other programs are transboundary in orientation. However, it is much more difficult in Europe to find young company’s venturing into entrepreneurial space alone. There are several reasons for this.

Since we write about and report on an international basis, Vector1 Media has the opportunity to engage government, industry and institutions around the world. That results in unique observations. We are also one of very few geospatial related publications with editors actually located in both Europe and North America. We can truly say that we are global in scope, and that nurtures observations and realisations.

European geospatial initiatives and approaches are heavily weighted toward government agencies and institutions. INSPIRE is perhaps the finest example of this with EU member states combining to develop and initiate policies that are transboundary in scope. The current Directive will become a requirement in early 2009, impacting all 27 member states. The net result is a collection of common Annex thematic areas which are grouped as priorities across the member states.

I cannot think of one common geospatial collection of thematic study areas between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Each of these countries operates unilaterally and concepts like studying transboundary river basins, cross border pollution and waterways (St. Lawrence Seaway) are few and far between. For three countries that share such large tracts of land with interfacing borders, it is somewhat perplexing that they do not have more formal (and highly visible) coordinated geospatial efforts, at least in some areas.

The issue of beginning a company (incorporation) has many differences between Europe and North America. While the United KIngdom permits incorporation for a relatively low cost, such is not the case in Germany where those initials ‘GmBH’ – which designate a limited corporation cost about 25,000 Euro to obtain. This obviously impacts the level of entrpreneurship for those individuals seeking to start a company with protected liability.

Several programs within Europe, such as GMES, ESA and Transport initiatives often originate through the European Union. The GALILEO GPS satellite system is another example of a program whose origin will rest with the EU, and thusly be controlled and regulated based on the member states agreement and willingness to support the program.

The study of spatial data infrastructure (SDI) is advanced within Europe. There are several projects that are operating across Europe that can be considered as SDI in nature and scope. They are not easy to manage and many of them need to develop their own unique character, thereby enabling the individuals and organisations within them to effectively manage and operate them. By comparison, North American programs, at least in my observation, tend to operate within countries who later meet at higher levels, developing cross country policies.

The approaches used for developing and solving geospatial problems between Europe and North America often follow a similar step-by-step approach. That is, when it comes to GIS, these projects tend to assess the need for GIS in similar ways and implement geosptial tools using similar approaches. This is how and why interoperability works on a global scale, although any differences can still be tailored with similar tools.

The area of SDI and GSDI are perhaps one of the most interesting when considering both regions. Neither has really solved the issues. The concept of states and provinces within North America working together and meeting challenges is not far removed from countries across Europe. Often North American jurisdictions have considerable responsbility and autonomy to enact changes as whole European countries do.

Culture and language as they relate to geospatial applications within Europe can be an issue. Although, one would be hard pressed to deny that placemarks in Virtual Earth or Google Earth or ArcExplorer are not global in nature and coverage, thus essentially breaking down these variables. People often say to me, “how is it that Germany would be interested in your magazine?” My response is often eye opening, since Germany is the world’s largest exporter and therefore many geospatial professionals speak English within the country — they are net geospatial exporters. The Netherlands is also rated high on this capability. The Provinces of Alberta and Ontario, Canada operate trade offices within Germany. On more than a few occasions I have had the opportunity to listen as they shared details about Canadian geospatial companies.

1Spatial, a UK-based company is one of few British operating geospatial related companies that is fully engaged across Europe, and has even gone further afield to Australia. The last statistics I have read clearly indicated that 60% of UK GDP originates within Europe, thus making Europe a primary territory for geospatial exports, knowledge and opportunity. By comparison, North America has been very effective at developing the global scale virtual world space. The geotechnologies associated with platforms and primary operating technologies.

There are exceptions to every rule and approach. However, the future for any geospatial company or individual today lies in realising the global nature of geospatial technologies, knowledge and opportunity. Laws governing operation may impact them, but geography and geospatial approaches are global in scope and demand tailoring to unique situations both across the road, as well as around the planet.

Matt Ball

The approaches for spatial data infrastructure (SDI) vary widely within these continents, and particularly from country to country in North America. One overriding difference in data policy that still has broad play across regions is the fee vs. free model for data collected by the government. The United States has long made federal data available for free, and has cultivated a strong geospatial industry based on that openness.

There appears to be more traction for the open data model of late across the world. Just this week, Geoff Zeiss reported on efforts in Australia and the United Kingdom to quantify the net benefits of open vs. free geospatial data to the overall economy. In both countries it was found that free and open data would have a greater positive impact on the economy than the restrictive licensing and cost recovery that currently exists in some countries.
Setting a Firm Foundation
While the United States established a policy of open data sharing among agencies and the public, the federated rather than centralized approach has long meant data collection redundancy and a lack of a strong foundation. While the U.S. Geological Survey owned the mapping mandate with the national topographic map set, the mandate became splintered by different agency interests when digital map data came to the forefront.

To be fair, there was no easy means for coordinated and centralized efforts when this paradigm shift occurred. It made sense for agencies to forge their own path with their own mainframe computers, in light of the fact that data sharing at the time for data at the national scale was near impossible. That momentum has been very hard to shift, even with the advent of the Internet as an enabler for collaboration.

The problem in the developed world is that geospatial data exists in many formats and for many purposes. It’s a very complex task to normalize and set the foundation after a great deal of work has already begun, and a number of different stakeholders have become entrenched with their own approaches.

Canada jump-started their GeoConnections program in 1999 with Internet distribution and data normalization as key components for building a better national data set. This approach, coupled with an emphasis on partnerships with government and industry, has provided good traction for the creation of the Canadian Spatial Data Infrastructure, and is serving as a model for other nations. The USGS does have the right idea for the National Map, along the same partnering and distribution model as GeoConnections, but it’s lacking a real mandate.

Standard Cause

Critical to the success of broad geospatial initiatives is a spirit of cooperation, collaboration and common purpose. From the perspective of the United States, these three ingredients have existed at different points in time, and haven’t come together yet to forge much progress on SDI that would take us to the next level.

Of late, there’s been more traction in the United States to ensure that no two federal players are paying twice for the same data. There’s now a growing trend to spread the collaboration efforts from the federal government down to the states in such initiatives as Imagery for the Nation and Transportation for the Nation, where all stakeholders could share in data collected once and distributed many times. The fact that so many states and agencies are behind this effort gives great hope for better data collaboration in the next administration.

The United States federal partners have long collaborated to establish data standards and outreach programs via the Federal Geographic Data Committee. This effort to set baseline standards for data across agencies and the country have effectively established best practices that have gained much respect around the world. While the standards creation process has been strong in this agency, a lack of authority to force change has hampered it’s ability to forge progress.

The common purpose has nowhere been more evident than immediately after 9/11, when it became overwhelmingly obvious that geospatial data was critical for disaster response. There was good movement immediately after this event to elevate the cause of standards and interoperability, but this momentum has largely faded, due in large part to the confusion and chaos of combining many agencies, including FEMA, into the behemoth Homeland Security Department.

Data Availability and Quality

As outlined above, the open data policy that has existed in the United States has only gone so far in solving cross-institutional redundancy and distribution issues.This contrasts with the standardization and high quality of the data created by the United Kingdom’s Ordnance Survey that operates solely on a cost recovery basis with strict licensing restrictions. Somewhere there’s a happy medium here where we can have high quality and openness.

I see some great promise in Europe’s INSPIRE program to forge this new paradigm, but I’m also daunted by the complexity of the data normalization problem that they face. In light of other normalization issues that haven’t garnered broad adherence, such as the standard Euro currency, there’s a tough road ahead.

The objectives of North American and European geospatial initiatives are in alignment as are most other parts of the world. The issue for major progress comes down to political will and simplification of complex problems. Perhaps climate change and the fate of our planet will provide the rallying point we all need to get beyond our current bottlenecks.