What is a geospatial infrastructure and why is it important?

September 23, 2019 Gordon Plunkett

There has been more and more talk these days regarding a geospatial infrastructure, and some progressive governments and agencies are beginning to look at developing one but what is a geospatial infrastructure? Most geospatial practitioners are familiar with using a spatial data infrastructure (SDI) for sharing, viewing and analyzing geospatial data over the web. But there seems to be some confusion on what a geospatial infrastructure is. Read this blog to find out the difference between a geospatial infrastructure and a spatial data infrastructure.

Let’s look at what an SDI is by digging a little deeper in its roots. Everyone concedes that the “Father of GIS” is Dr. Roger Tomlinson, who conceived the idea and built the Canada Land Inventory system based on GIS concepts in the early 1960s. But, do we know who is the “Father of SDI”?  A few years back, we had an online discussion with GIS experts around the globe regarding this. While no one could pinpoint who developed the vision for and coined the term “spatial data infrastructure,” three names came to the forefront and credit for SDI surely goes in part to all threeDr. John McLaughlin, Dr. David Coleman and Dr. Ian Masser.

The concept of an SDI started back in the 1990s when the internet era began, and people wanted to share and exchange their GIS data on the new information highway. Standards started to be developed for spatial data interchange with governments, global organizations and other interested parties creating a mechanism that worked around the globe. Canada was no exception and founded the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI). The United States instituted the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The United Nations established the United Nations Spatial Data Infrastructure (UNSDI). However, the key was that all these SDIs are, what is termed as, “interoperable”. Interoperability is the ability of different systems, devices or applications to connect, in a coordinated manner, across organizational boundaries to access, exchange and cooperatively use data amongst stakeholders.

The interoperability of SDIs boosted the work of GIS practitioners because they could use other people’s data more easily and more quickly than they could in the past. It sped up GIS projects allowing decisionmakers to review results sooner. However, the initial SDIs—supported mostly by custom coding—were characterized by frequent breakdowns, unreliable performance and low levels of interoperability. Vendors soon began supporting newly developed international SDI standards and Esri was no exception. Today, Esri has a large suite of tools and APIs that support modern SDIs and spatial data sharing.

So, if SDIs are what we need now, then what is a geospatial infrastructure and what will it do for the GIS community? Jack Dangermond, in one of his ArcNews articles, indicates that a geospatial infrastructure includes more things than an SDI, such as data, data models, workflows, positioning, GIS and maps. Physical infrastructure includes basic physical objects such as structures, facilities, roads and power lines that are needed for the operation of a city. In the same context, a geospatial infrastructure is inclusive of all things geospatial.

As we move from an industrial economy to an information economy, our reliance on physical infrastructure is being supplemented by reliance on a new type of infrastructure: geographic knowledge. Image source: ArcNews Winter 

Recently, I wrote a post on the United Kingdom’s Geospatial Commission which has the mandate to implement and maintain a geospatial infrastructure for the UK. Its purpose is to improve productivity across the UK by using geospatial data, collaboration, process improvement and policy enhancements. So, a geospatial infrastructure covers all thing geospatial such as data, technology, policy and people. While a spatial data infrastructure, on the other hand, is primarily focused on providing geospatial data on the web. In other words, SDIs are basically a subset of a geospatial infrastructure. Another way of looking at it is that an SDI is a fundamentally soft infrastructure, while a geospatial infrastructure includes both soft and hard infrastructure components. Both SDIs and geospatial infrastructures are rapidly becoming critical infrastructures for governments, communities and agencies.

A geospatial infrastructure covers all aspects and technologies related to geomatics. Some examples of applications include land surveying, mapping, earth observation and sensor networks.

In summary, with geospatial data use becoming more and more ubiquitous, it’s important for organizations and governments to organize, standardize and cooperate in implementing and using their geospatial capabilities. Hence, a holistic approach for handling all geospatial data, technology and processes is recommended. Despite the fact that spatial data infrastructure and a geospatial infrastructure sound similar, they are actually quite different. If we want to stay current with the trends, I recommend that we start reviewing our organization’s entire geospatial process, explore new technologies and processes, and learn what others are doing with their geospatial infrastructure.

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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