GeoEconomy Standards

The Value of Simplifying the Exchange of Geoinformation
By Steven Ramage | Published August 23, 2011

This chart illustrates the multiple sources of geospatial information and exchange of information that takes place to deliver a geoinformation service to an end user. Courtesy of the Open Geospatial Consortium.

Transportation and communications technologies have ushered in a new global GeoEconomy, making production networks and trading networks more spatially distributed, dynamic and complex than ever before. Geoinformation adds value in any economy (agricultural, industrial, or information age) because location-based content and services bring buyers and sellers together and help assess costs and risks. Geoinformation is thus, in the GeoEconomy, an increasingly valuable commodity, and is increasingly bought, sold or given away as infrastructure.

In The Global Shift, Peter Dicken wrote “The geo-economy…can be pictured as a geographically uneven, highly complex and dynamic web of production networks, economic spaces and places connected together through threads of flows. Once established, a cluster tends to grow through a process of cumulative, self-reinforcing development involving:

  • Attraction of linked activities
  • Stimulation of entrepreneurship and innovation
  • Deepening and widening of the local labor market
  • Economic diversification
  • Enrichment of the ‘industrial atmosphere’
  • ‘Thickening’ of local institutions
  • Intensification of the socio-cultural milieu
  • Enhanced physical infrastructures.”

In this article we invite you to consider that the global GeoEconomy, as well as many valuable non-economic activities, depends on the exchange of geoinformation and that the cost-efficient exchange of geoinformation depends on standards, particularly open standards.

What Is a Geospatial Standard?

Communication means “transmitting or exchanging through a common system of symbols, signs or behavior.” Standardization means “agreeing on a common system.” Information exchange of any kind depends on information standards such as alphabets, grammars, vocabularies, number systems and digital encodings. Simple verbal geo-communication (“meet me at my house”) is easy. Exchanging geoinformation between digital systems (machine to machine) is more complicated.

The complexity of geoinformation exchange becomes apparent when you consider the many different ways we can encode location, measure distance and altitude, image the Earth, describe curves, calculate area, adjust computational errors, name geographic features, etc. (See Figure 1 for an illustration of geoinformation exchange.) As more devices and digital systems incorporate geospatial information, the absence of a standardized communication language makes interoperab-ility between software and devices a challenging and costly proposition. Some geospatial standards specify whether latitude or longitude must come first, and whether these numbers are to be expressed as floating point numbers or degrees, minutes and seconds. A standard might specify whether a comma or a colon separates the coordinate pairs that define the segments in a line.

With such standards, software developers don’t need to reinvent or even fully understand the interfaces and encodings that order this kind of communication. These complexities can be hidden from the user, to focus on the end-user objectives for the use of the geoinformation.

The Value of Sharing Geoinformation

The value of geoinformation is apparent in everyday activities when delivered via location-specific online ads, in-car GPS, Web maps, friend-finder apps on cell phones, 911 emergency location services, “Call Before You Dig” services, etc. The list of familiar and useful applications is long, and many other applications are less familiar but provide value in domains such as infrastructure maintenance, hydrology, urban planning, logistics, fraud management, mobile workforce management, and so on.

Geoinformation is part of the information that passes between companies and organizations in a value chain. Ironically, people often recognize the value of sharing geoinformation after recognizing the value of geoinformation. Local, subnational and national governments, for example, have information they would like to share, because they would like to avoid redundant data collection and be able to “roll up” data from multiple sources and provide better information to officials and citizens. Users of messaging services and social networking services would like to be able to share location information with others who use different social networking or messaging platforms. For geospatial information to have real value, it must be shared and exchanged.

Most providers of geographic information systems, Earth imaging systems, spatial database systems, and some providers of location-based services implement open standards that enable their users to query each others’ systems for data and services.

Convergence and Fusion

Open standards enable software to do much of the data management and manipulation that once had to be done manually, and this affects workflows. For example, text, audio and video have converged in Web applications, partly through the Web’s open standards. Web mapping represents a convergence of map display technology, mass-market Web server technology, and Web programming technologies, and this comes partly through open standards.

Fusion refers generally to the integration of information. The simplest location services involve merely accessing a simple database of geographic points of interest and their geographic coordinates. More sophisticated services can involve combining – fusing – geographic features from different databases, looking for changes in features, selecting features based on temporal queries, or other operations that may require accessing external data or services.

Mobile devices that increasingly feature sensors represent convergence and fusion. Open standards can support systems that analyze, process and exploit the same or different types of data or products from multiple sensors to improve detection, identification, location, and tracking.

The Market-building Value of Open Platforms

The Web is perhaps the most dramatic example of open standards supporting market growth, but this phenomenon has been well understood since the advent of commodity nuts and bolts and standard spacing of railroad rails. Similarly, open geospatial standards increase the value of geospatial data because, for example, they enable any data service that can produce a simple map image to provide that image to any application via a single http request.

Data for selected geographic regions represented in complex Earth images and vector files can likewise be delivered through queries that implement open standards. This applies as well to simple and complex geoprocessing Web services and to geolocated sensors and sensor data stores. Both data and services increase in value with the number of nodes in the world’s vast network of servers running applications that implement open geospatial interfaces and encodings.

Not all of the geospatial information products and services provided via the Web depend on open standards, but many do. Google brought KML, the application programming interface for Google Maps and Google Earth, into the OGC to be maintained as an open standard. Michael Weiss-Malik, Google KML product manager, explained, “What OGC brings to the table is…everyone has confidence we won’t take advantage of the format or change it in a way that will harm anyone... Governments like to say they can publish to OGC KML instead of Google KML.” KML is now implemented in Web mapping applications from other vendors.

Standards for consumer services such as next bus arrival time, wifi hotspot finder or camera location focus on lightweight geospatial standards such as very small profiles of the OGC Geography Markup Language (GML) Encoding Standard. Other examples include the candidate OGC Open GeoSMS encoding standard; GeoPDF (a candidate OGC Best Practice); GeoRSS (which includes a GML option); and GeoJSON, an open format for encoding a variety of geographic data structures that implements the OGC/EPSG’s standard way of managing coordinate reference systems.

However, some platform and social networking companies seeking to capture and keep users may avoid implementing open geospatial standards in situations where such standards would enable users to exit easily to other websites. At the same time, many social media, crowdsourcing and user-generated content sites chartered to provide societal benefit, such as Ushahidi, InRelief, Sahana and Haiti SDI VGI implement open standards to broaden participation by developers and users.

Open platforms are important as a means of integrating the elements of distributed or federated geospatial data-sharing networks. At all levels of government around the world, officials want to be able to share maps on the Web and deliver data to different systems. They want to have a common language to speak about geospatial data and services, and they want all the systems in a data-sharing network to conform to sometimes complex security rules relating to geospatial data exchange. Standards-based government spatial data infrastructures (SDIs) expand markets for geospatial data, software and services.

Most providers of geographic information systems, Earth imaging systems, spatial database systems, and some providers of location-based services implement open standards that enable their users to query each others’ systems for data and services.

Where Would the GeoEconomy Be Without Open Standards?

Without geospatial standards of some kind, there could be no communication of geospatial information. Like paved cow paths, or natural languages, many standards are formalizations of common usage. Empires are important drivers for such formalizations. For example, the Prime Meridian passes through the Observatory at Greenwich largely because England had dominated the seas for almost two centuries before the U.S. called for an International Meridian Conference to establish a single global standard. In the digital age, innovation speeds along, constantly creating new and pathless territory for standardization. Companies vie for dominance, hoping to establish their proprietary encodings and interfaces as platforms for further development that they can control and exploit.

With nothing but proprietary standards, geospatial information would certainly flow to support the global GeoEconomy and non-economic activities, and there would be a market in geoinformation. There would still be technology convergence, information fusion and growth of markets for geospatial data, services and products. With open standards, however, there is more competition and more innovation. Users can influence technologies’ directions through standards and they can shop in a more bounteous market. Entrepreneurs have more reason to hope, and both new and established businesses have more potential customers. We would still have a geoeconomy without open standards, but it would be more constrained by monopolies.