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OGC – Uniting & Growing a diverse industry

By Mark Reichardt – May 21, 2016. As geospatial data becomes more common and useful to all aspects of commerce and personal activities, users are demanding simple ways to access content, thus turning the focus on interoperability and consistency in service of data. – By Mark Reichardt, Scott Simmons & Simon Chester, Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC).

Much like information technology (IT) before it, GIS and spatial technology has grown from a niche technology used by experts to become a tool critical to many business processes. Further to this, “location” is now a foundational element for many consumer and citizen services, with location-based services — through sensors and mobile devices — being used daily by millions across the globe.

But how did it get to this point?

In the early days of GIS, ‘silos of excellence’ were created around domains and tailored to suit the specific needs of large organizations. With a lack of universally open standards, these were designed using proprietary formats. There was also a culture of protecting and hoarding data, but little understanding of the benefits of sharing. However, there were glimmers of an ‘open’ movement brewing, akin to those that drove the success of the Internet and World Wide Web, where the geospatial community realized that interconnectivity and interoperability would increase utility and drive innovation.

During this time, if there was a need for data to be shared between multiple GIS systems, the only solution was to write custom code — a costly and time-consuming exercise. One pioneering solution was to have the government community align on a single implementation of GIS. GRASS — a Unix-based GIS created by the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) — was an initial choice; free, modular, and maintained in a process driven by user input. GRASS was eventually released to academic community and then moved into Web-based open source maintenance in 1997.

But as the geospatial industry expanded with more choices of GIS tools and as geospatial content became more broadly available to serve public and private sector interests, the issue of data sharing became a more important industry-wide issue. Actual “technical interoperability” — a commonly understood communication of data and instructions between two different systems — was an idea only a few had explored in the community, but was a challenge in need of a solution.

In 1994, the Open GIS Consortium, Inc. (now the Open Geospatial Consortium) was founded as an international voluntary consensus standards organization. The goal was to bring together the rapidly expanding community of GIS developers and users to achieve true “interoperability” between geospatial information sources and associated software tools. The OGC vision was one of diverse geoprocessing systems communicating directly over networks by means of a set of open interfaces based on the “Open Geodata Interoperability Specification” (OGIS).

This vision led, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, to the birth and maturation of a framework of OGC Open Web Services standards that allowed geographically separate servers and processes to interconnect with each other.

Disparate silos to a standards-based industry

A global take up of these standards further progressed GIS’ utility, and transformed the industry from disparate silos to a standards-based, interoperable collection of geospatial information sources, process and end user tools.

Governments rapidly began realizing the benefit of opening data and sharing it across government agencies and industry, and this period saw the inclusion of open, interoperable standards as a foundational component of National Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDIs), as well as a growing body of policy and law favoring, and even mandating, open standards for geospatial implementations in government. Examples of countries advancing SDIs underpinned by standards include Canada, New Zealand, India, US, with regional SDIs exemplified by INSPIRE in Europe.

The sharing of authoritative, government data resulted in a broad global advancement of OGC-based geospatial product offerings from industry. Software vendors developed products that served content through OGC standards to augment their proprietary service architectures and data providers began populating large databases to be served through commercial and open source OGC-compliant implementations.

Benefit to the society

This is one area where the adoption of open, interoperable standards not only helped propel the geospatial industry forward, but also had a notable impact on society, as these spatial data services have enabled rapid support to responders during natural disasters, maritime issues, and other critical tasks — bringing tangible benefit to the global community, and even helping save lives.

With a consistent baseline of enabling standards established, government agencies, especially those representing the defense, public safety, and emergency management and response communities, became focused on the need to establish shared situational awareness with their partners via ‘common operating pictures.’ A number of these communities began to take leadership roles in standards development organizations (SDOs), including the OGC, to achieve the standards-based interoperability necessary to make this goal a reality. These SDOs, in turn, formed liaison agreements to align their efforts and provide consistent standards across their respective user communities. For instance, many OGC standards move into the ISO process to become ISO Standards and the two bodies work wherever possible to align their efforts in geospatial standards creation.

With the expansion of the Internet in the mid 2000s, browser-based maps — as well as free Web-connected desktop software like NASA World Wind and Google Earth — increased in both utility and popularity. Having such broad availability of maps and map services on the Web — thanks again in part to open and interoperable standards — allowed a single mapping application to draw on data from many different sources. This meant that non-experts, including the general public, were for the first time contributing to the creation and maintenance of spatial data, whether it be through participation in the crowd sourcing efforts such as the OpenStreetMap project, or by sending feedback reports while using Google Maps.

The pace and impact of OGC and related ISO geospatial standards deepened within the last decade.

⇒ Systems Integrators increased their commitment to open standards including OGC geospatial standards on behalf of their clients, moving away from closed technology solutions towards standards-based interoperability. This work enables their clients to more flexibly extend their service solutions by virtue of open standards architecture.
⇒ IT solution providers broadened their adoption of OGC and ISO standards in response to the growing user community preference for open standards and to position spatially enabled products and services for application across new markets.
⇒ Geodata content discovery and access from government and commercial providers improved as open standards facilitated exchange and sharing. DigitalGlobe, exactEarth, and other commercial satellite providers leverage OGC standards for distribution to the community. The Group on Earth Observations advances a Global Earth System of Systems (GEOSS) Common Infrastructure emphasizing OGC, ISO and complimentary open standards to enable interoperability across the myriad of national EO assets.
⇒ As the geospatial industry undergoes consolidation, OGC standards have become an important enabler to assist companies in achieving interoperability across previously separate vendor product lines, and in integrating acquired products.

Advancing standards

Today, “location” has become an underpinning to countless business functions, products and services; and the focus of startups and where geospatial information and technologies have become a crucial enabler of broader IT business decisions. Through the mid 2000’s, OGC was focussed largely on advancing standards to establish fundamental interoperability across applications, systems and networks. Today, however, a significant amount of OGC work is committed to assisting user communities in developing standards best practices to enable interoperability across their community of interest, and with other communities of interest.

With the spatial industry’s growing capability and reach across public and private sector communities, OGC is placing emphasis on advancing standards to address the changing technology marketplace, as well as assisting in the identification and adoption of common standards frameworks that assure greater levels of interoperability.

Yet challenges remain

Interoperability and consistency in service of data has been tailored to powerful computing resources. Users now consume and create geodata on handheld devices, limited in computational power and bandwidth. The OGC is working with its members and many alliance partner SDOs and community associations to develop more lightweight standards to facilitate data sharing across diversely-capable devices: the OGC GeoPackage standard is an example of a flexible, low-overhead mechanism to store and exchange geospatial content.

It is also important to consider that as geospatial data becomes more common and useful to all aspects of commerce and personal activities, users will demand increasingly simple ways to access content. Expect lightweight APIs, such as the OGC SensorThings API for the Internet of Things, to advance. SDOs will need to redefine some of their processes to accommodate a rapidly-changing technology workplace where innovation occurs in months, not years.