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Inside Canadian geographic data sharing

Canada has a lot of geography so its important for sustainable national development that we are very good at sharing our voluminous geographic data assets. So how do we share this geospatial data, how is Esri Canada helping out and how is Canada doing?

The ability to effortlessly share geographic data has been a dream of the Canadian geospatial community for over two decades. To meet this ambitious goal, in 1999, the federal government began the development of the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI).  At the time, people were not sure what the CGDI was or what it could or should do. There were even discussions about whether data was included in the CGDI or not. Today, things are a lot clearer in terms of what’s needed, but there’s still a lot of work required to actually operate and propagate a national Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) in Canada through consensus and volunteers.

The CGDI is the “framework” of a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) that’s been designed to allow for access, sharing and use of geospatial data assets within the Canadian geomatics community. The GeoConnections Program at Natural Resources Canada has already invested over $120 million in the development of the CGDI and the work is not yet complete. Just like other technology developments, people continually think of improved ways of doing things. Over the decades, the improvements in SDI technology and approaches are significant, just like the substantial changes in mobile phone and laptop computer technology over the same period. Today’s technology mantra continues to be smaller, faster, cheaper, simpler, smarter and better.

In the pre-SDI days, geographic data sharing was accomplished by distributing hardcopy maps or copying digital files onto magnetic or optical media. This “sharing” required a lot of work for both the information producer and the information consumer. Significant progress has been made to improve data sharing via the Web and it’s getting closer to just pushing a button. However, the reach of geographic data is so broad that previous methods of sharing data are still too slow and cumbersome to allow data consumers to receive the most up-to-date information. Also, the consumers of encapsulated and visualized geographic information products and services have grown from primarily GIS practitioners to knowledge workers and today, spatial data consumers include the general public.

These products and services, which are most often maps, help solve real world problems by communicating geographic information. Many general public users today want specialized geographic information such as: when is the next bus going to arrive at my bus stop? When will the snow plow clean my street? Where are the traffic delays due to traffic volume or road construction? Knowledge workers such as emergency responders want information including the location of hazardous materials, vulnerable populations or hospitals. Some real world examples are given in Figure 1.1.

Figure 1.1: Consumers of geographic information products have expanded from GIS practitioners to knowledge workers and the general public. Web maps solve real world problems by communicating information that answers questions such as when will my garbage be picked up? What tourist attractions are available? Emergency responders can also leverage Web maps to get information on the location of hazardous materials, vulnerable populations or hospitals. Featured above: City of Peterborough e-Maps, City of Kingston Emergency Common Operational Picture (COP) and the Town of Banff Heritage Walking Tour app, all developed leveraging Esri’s cloud and server technologies.

Unfortunately, non-GIS specialists do not see and most often do not understand all of the hidden, background work that is required to publish a Web map. So what Spatial Data Infrastructure technology is required to create these typical applications? At a minimum, the following functionality is needed: 1) ascertain and collect the necessary data, 2) aggregate the collected data as quickly as possible, 3) store the data for easy access, 4) provide the data on demand via the Web and 5) keep the data and technology refreshed. However, this is quite a long and complicated shopping list of requirements.

Esri Canada has been a very active participant in the development of the CGDI to date. In particular, a few years back, Esri Canada President Alex Miller took the initiative to invest in and begin the development of the Esri Canada Community Maps Program. This program is now operational and provides a cost-effective and efficient framework for organizations to share their geographic information via a Web map. The program enables organizations across Canada to contribute their geographic information which is then aggregated and published as a community map on ArcGIS Online, a Web site for finding and sharing GIS content and building communities.

In addition to data and services, Esri Canada offers technology that allows users to develop their own capabilities for accessing and sharing their geospatial information via the CGDI. A whitepaper is available that describes this technology.  This “Esri Canada CGDI cookbook” briefly describes the CGDI including standards, technology and data, plus it gives a few examples of implementations. There have been many additional, more powerful implementations since the writing of the whitepaper, but these examples provide a flavor of what was available at the time.

So how has Canada performed in the development of the CGDI? I would say that despite a few rocky spots along the road, Canada has fared relatively well to date in developing capabilities for sharing geographic data, when compared with other nations around the world. Canada has a lot of geography so we need to be world class in terms of geospatial data sharing.

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About the Author

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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