How do collaborative hierarchies impact SDI governance?

October 12, 2020 Gordon Plunkett

SDIs are a bit like the Internet in that, through them, geospatial data can be shared between various organizational servers. However, also like the Internet, the quality of the data and the quality of the service can vary. So that’s why it’s useful to initiate a governance framework for your SDI within a single or many Geospatial Collaboratives. This will allow you to interact with other like-minded or nearby organizations in your collaborative to share data, resources and especially knowhow and best practices. Read this blog post to find out how SDIs and Geospatial Collaboratives can cooperate for mutual benefit and to see how ArcGIS technology can help you set up and operate a supportive SDI. You’ll also learn about some of the issues to watch for to help you avoid problems.

SDIs require implementation across several factors including leadership, governance, technology, policies, organizational arrangements, legal frameworks and skills development. I’ve often been asked how individual SDIs are integrated into and cooperate with broader SDI communities such as Geospatial Collaboratives. This is an excellent question because there are now plenty of systems that identify themselves as SDIs due to their primary function, which is the sharing and exchanging of geospatial data. The hierarchy of how an SDI interacts with partners and collaborators is part of the SDI’s governance. For those unfamiliar with SDI governance, it was described in a previous blog post, which basically describes how SDIs are managed and administered outside of the SDI organization.

So take, for example, the Government of Canada‘s internal SDI, called the Federal Geospatial Platform (FGP), which has an external SDI called the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI). Most provinces have geospatial data sharing portals and tools, such as New Brunswick's Map Viewer and British Columbia’s SDI. The YorkInfo Partnership is an SDI where the constituent towns and cities within York Region share data internally and with the public. In addition, Canada is part of larger SDI initiatives such as the Marine Spatial Data Infrastructure and the Arctic Spatial Data Infrastructure.

Given that SDIs are being used more and more, how does one keep track of where a particular SDI is or should be in the SDI hierarchy and how it collaborates with other SDIs? In the past, it was relatively simple to categorize SDIs into a pyramidal hierarchy first made popular by Abbas Rajabifard and Ian P. Williamson in their research paper entitled “Spatial Data Infrastructures: Concept, SDI Hierarchy and Future Directions”. I’ve used the pyramid model as well in previous blog posts like Smart Cities Challenge: An opportunity to grow spatial data infrastructures.

SDIs can be developed, operated and managed by any level of government and geography. The key is to use common interoperability standards and practices to allow seamless data sharing across all SDIs. In Canada, the CGDI defines high-level standards, protocols and policies.

For fiscal reasons, organizations generally do not collect all the geographic data necessary for their GIS applications. They need to get this uncollected data, such as basemaps, imagery, place names and contour lines, from some other source via an SDI. This is why SDIs are now an essential component of the technical infrastructure of any level or size of government, utility or organization that uses GIS. Organizations are beginning to see the advantages of integrating high-quality and current GIS data from other organizations for assisting in their decision making process. In addition, creating linkages to collaborating agencies is a good practice just in case there is an unexpected emergency or disaster event where access to additional data is required quickly.

An SDI provides access to and use of non-local GIS data. Also, an SDI facilitates the creation, exchange and use of geospatial data and related information resources across an information-sharing community. It requires institutional arrangements, policies and technical standards. Operationally, it needs to facilitate the capture, management, maintenance, integration, distribution and use of spatial information.

The key here is to share data and work with organizations that provide high-quality or authoritative data. Dr. Barry Wellar noted in his recent special report entitled “The Inescapable Truth about Disinformation and Misinformation? They have nothing at all to do with Information” that not using the best available data can lead to incorrect analysis or poor decision making. So always check out any external data that you are including directly in your SDI to make sure the data is fit for your purpose. Better still, create a governance regimen through a Geospatial Collaborative for sharing data and best practices with supplementary organizations.

An SDI cannot operate on its own and needs other partners and collaborators for sharing data, information, efforts and outcomes. Both horizonal and vertical collaboration is now the norm for SDIs in Canada. Original slide courtesy of Jill Saligoe-Simmel (Esri).

So, if and when you are implementing or upgrading an SDI, here’s what you need to know and do:

  1. Assess how current or improved geographic data can support or augment existing GIS applications or decision making processes in your organization.
  2. Search and find the geographic data files or services identified in item 1 above and identify the organization that collects and provides this data.
  3. After testing, using and validating the data found in item 2 above, contact the organization providing the data to open a line of human communication with the other organization. (Ensure that the data satisfies the FAIR data principle by being findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable.)
  4. Explore ways to work with the other organization to share data and best practices, and, if necessary, create a formal SDI governance model through a Geospatial Cooperative.
  5. Work with other organizations to invest further in data quality, access and performance improvements across the SDI.

In terms of technology for your SDI, ArcGIS Enterprise, deployed either on-premises or in the cloud, is a great solution for securely sharing GIS data within your Geospatial Collaborative. In addition to capabilities such as data management, mapping, visualization, analysis and data discovery, ArcGIS Enterprise allows users to:

  • create, save and share web maps and scenes
  • create and host web mapping apps
  • search for GIS content within your organization
  • create groups to share GIS information with colleagues
  • share links to GIS apps
  • share map and layer packages to use in ArcGIS Pro or browsers

Across Canada, GIS communities are organizing into Geospatial Collaboratives, which are alliances of organizations that determine the rules of engagement for managing and sharing geospatial data cooperatively and for engaging with and growing the capacity of their communities. A Geospatial Collaborative is basically an “organization of organizations” that forms the SDI governance framework. The relationships and interactions among these SDI collaborators are strong, dynamic and most often self-organizing.

Just like the Internet, SDIs are built to allow connections to all varieties and types of websites and services. However, what’s different about SDIs is geography. Usually, organizations will collaborate with partner organizations and governments that are neighbouring or geographically close. In addition, organizations will collaborate with like-minded organizations that are working in the same industry sector, such as public safety, environment, agriculture, defence and transportation. But no matter how your SDI is governed—whether for collaboration in multiple vertical sectors, multiple horizontal jurisdictions, or both—the objective remains the same, which is to connect data, people and systems for the betterment of all.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here

About the Author

Gordon Plunkett

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

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