The role of SDIs in the democratization of geospatial data and services

May 13, 2019 Gordon Plunkett

The democratization of geospatial data and location-based services is an effective and efficient way for governments to provide geospatial information to stakeholders online. The development of web maps and apps is growing as governments are beginning to see the immense value, the broad reach and the high economic value of providing geospatial data and services online. Read this blog to find out how SDIs are important to the successful implementation and operation of a government’s online presence.

The democratization of government data and services has been going on for the past few years and now it’s catching on in the geospatial world. So, what is the meaning of the democratization of geospatial data and services? It means, essentially, a system implementation principle which states that the data or service should be accessible to anyone and everyone who wants it, hence the term democratization. For data, this concept is aligned with “open data”, which the Canadian federal government defines as structured data that is machine-readable, freely shared, and can be used and reused without restriction. For services, this principle usually includes the concept of self-service using the web, which has recently been popularized by the online shopping phenomenon in the commercial sector.

Governments are cautious about implementing new technology, so they are seldom early adopters of new innovations.  However, with the leadership of the federal government, open data sites providing access to geospatial data have been successfully implemented at many levels of government. There are many benefits of open geospatial data:

  • Supporting innovation in the public and private sectors;
  • Reducing expensive duplicate data creation;
  • Promoting the reuse of existing geospatial data assets;
  • Leveraging data investments to develop consumer and commercial products;
  • Supporting evidence-based research; and
  • Reducing the number and costs of servicing requests for data and information.

Government open data is usually published on an open data website where the users can download as many files as they wish. This open data is provided in many popular and familiar geospatial formats for easy ingestion into the user’s business or scientific system.

The City of Brampton developed and operates an award-winning public open data site that provides Brampton’s collection of open data that can be selected from many categories.

Now governments are moving to the democratization of geospatial services. This trend is to make web maps and apps readily accessible to as many people as possible. Many types of maps and apps are now being provided by governments to the citizenry for their immediate use including applications such as: viewing flood zones, locating local government facilities, providing traffic flow information and so on. These geospatial services are a step easier to use than open data as the user just requires a web browser and no file download or knowledge of the file’s internal formats is needed.

The web maps and apps are an easy way for people to understand the data so that they can use it to expedite decision-making, discover opportunities or simply to get information. The goal of democratizing geospatial services is to allow anyone to use data at any time on any device with no barriers to access and less possibility of misinterpretation of the results.

From the government’s perspective, this innovation is termed as the democratization of services; from the citizens’ perspective, it’s called spatially enabling the society. But, no matter how you look at it, when the service is of high-quality, citizens and organizations begin to rely on access to and results from these online geospatial and location-based web sites.

These sites sometimes become very popular (go viral), especially when the government agency is publishing authoritative information about an emergency situation such as wildfires, floods, earthquakes or extreme weather events. When implementing these online services (especially emergency services), it’s important for the service to be fully scalable so that no one is denied the service because of overloaded servers.

One of the reasons why the democratization of services works so well is the pervasiveness of the internet and the availability of technology for citizens to access the internet. Most citizens have a computer, tablet or mobile phone that allows them to use online web services. Another reason for efficient services is that SDIs have developed to the point where the provision of geospatial data and services is simply an add-on to their existing SDI infrastructure.

An example of a web map service from the Government of Canada’s Federal Geospatial Platform (FGP), which shows commemorative information regarding the names and locations of places named after Canada’s fallen war heroes.

Here are some exemplary government geospatial information services that are available online for public consumption:

Over the years there have been many requests to all the different levels of government to provide more information to their citizens. So, governments are looking for alternative, effective and efficient ways to provide information to their citizens. SDI-enabled web maps and web apps are simple, easy, reliable and accessible services for making government information available to the public. These services are proving to be a useful and popular method of providing information to those who need or want it.

The democratization of geospatial and location web services will continue as governments see the immense value, the broad reach and the economic value of providing web maps and apps. Is your government organization already providing information via geospatial web maps and apps? If not, why not?

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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