When location counts
- By Brian Robinson
- Jun 02, 2003
New Web-based geospatial and mapping services are among the top information technology priorities for the new Homeland Security Department (DHS), but building those systems will not be easy until there is a better way to combine geospatial information from different sources.
That job is the main priority of the Open GIS Consortium Inc. (OGC), which is developing ways to tie together the massive amounts of geospatial data that already exist in the United States and around the world. Geographic information systems and similar technologies have been used to crank out this data for many years, but the systems that produced the information are proprietary to specific vendors, and the data generated by one system cannot easily be used with another vendor's systems.
Overlaying and combining these layers of data for the same geographic region — a process that greatly increases the usefulness of the data — requires complex and time-consuming data conversions. OGC, an international consortium of more than 250 companies, government agencies and universities, is becoming a key focal point in the effort to define a set of common interfaces that will enable those combinations to happen automatically via the Web.
In fact, an OGC reference guide that would help organizations build geospatial solutions that can link disparate systems may be available as early as this summer.
The vision is that someone in the business department of a government agency who has no IT expertise could order a combination of data overlays from any number of available sources around the world by simply pointing and clicking on a Web browser.
The only way that could happen now would be to send an order to the agency's GIS office, if it had one, and wait for GIS specialists to pull up the data and combine it. Even then, the output would probably be presented on a paper map rather than in a more easily manipulated digital format.
The level of interoperability that OGC work will produce "is so important to everything we do today," said Myra Bambacus, program manager of NASA's Geospatial Interoperability Office, which is pushing to have geospatial interoperability recognized as a vital component of the space agency's research, models and missions.
"The amount of geospatially related data is so large that it's very difficult to get your arms around it," she said. "Interoperability is
vital for that."
The OGC process begins with consortium members who are users of geospatial technology. Vendors, integrators and researchers discuss their usage patterns, based on given interoperability requirements, and those discussions result in agenda items for various technical, advisory and planning committees.
After the committees sift through the pros and cons of the various items, draft specifications are drawn up to try to meet those interoperability requirements. The draft specifications are then taken to various engineering test beds to see how well they work in practice.
Geography Markup Language (GML), a popular method for transporting geographic data over the Web using Extensible Markup Language, is one of the consortium's products that resulted from just such a bottom-up initiative.
New specifications will likely arise from solutions to the problems OGC members encounter as they struggle to make the software work in the prototyping test beds. That's also the case with OGC pilot projects, in which commercial geospatial products that use newly defined interoperability interfaces are tested in real-world settings.
It's this close tie to real-world, commercial applications that makes OGC so attractive to many users.
The National Imagery and Mapping Agency has specific needs for the commercial software it uses. For example, a 3-D component is important when using geospatial data for such things as subsurface navigation at sea, according to Teri Dempsey, NIMA's chief officer for geospatial intelligence standards. However, the bulk of geospatial products today don't support true 3-D representations, she said.
By working through OGC, she feels NIMA is quickly able to get a lot of this kind of functionality into commercial off-the-shelf products.
"We could probably have done this [specification] work without the OGC, but it would have been far more expensive and would have taken a lot longer," Dempsey said. "We also would not have gotten the same commercial acceptance" of government-defined
Homeland and Agency Applications
The OGC program that is currently most closely associated with DHS is the Critical Infrastructure Protection Initiative, a series of pilot projects aimed at improving geospatial interoperability specifically for critical infrastructure protection and related services.
Phase 1 of the first iteration of CIPI (or CIPI-1) ended with a March 27 demonstration of a pilot project that focused on the Windsor, Ontario/Detroit area, on the border of Canada and the United States. The pilot project tested the use of OGC standards to establish a common understanding of an emergency situation and help coordinate an incident response.
Phase 2 of CIPI-1 will be sponsored by NIMA and will add a NIMA data server to the network of servers built under Phase 1 as well as examine information security and other issues involved with the network.
A reference architecture that enterprises could use to rapidly build an infrastructure for sharing geospatial data could be published as early as the summer, according to Jeff Harrison, director of OGC's Interoperability Program, which manages CIPI. Organizations that use the reference architecture guidebook should also be able to communicate and use one another's data, he said.
It's still too soon to say what the overall reception of OGC's work will be, however the consortium's influence is spreading. Its specifications are finding their way into the standards produced by the International Standards Organization, for example, and U.S. government procurements are starting to require compliance with OGC guidelines.
Agencies are pinning more of their future activities on OGC-inspired advances.
For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been modernizing its mapping systems, and GIS has become one of its core technologies. Many of its map products are still paper-based, but the agency is moving toward greater use of digital geospatial data.
The ability to add various data layers to base maps will enable emergency plans to be drawn up quickly for efforts such as finding people in flood plains, said Scott McAfee, GIS coordinator for FEMA's mitigation division.
This is something that's currently hard to do with paper-based maps, because environments can change substantially over time.
"The OGC work is very important to what we do," McAfee said. "It's helped shape our future vision for such things as hazards data, and where mapping and other activities are headed."
OGC will also mean a lot to GIS vendors, who are facing significant market changes in the near future.
Intergraph Mapping & Geospatial Solutions was one of the founders of OGC, even though its business depended on selling software that ran only on its proprietary hardware systems. But Intergraph's thoughts on what its business will be "has turned 180 degrees to totally interoperable
solutions," said Matthew Tate, director of the company's U.S. federal business unit.
"As a GIS vendor you can either stay in one vertical market and try to make a business, or you can try to drive geospatial data into other verticals where the users may not necessarily be geospatial experts," he said. "For that you need the OGC and its work on interoperability."
Not that OGC is perfect. The specifications it has produced so far are solid and show potential for interoperability, but they are not as robust as many vendors would like them to be, according to Tate. Greater functionality is needed, such as more ways to interact with Web services standards, which are used to build Web-based, integrated applications, he said.
One valuable lesson that OGC has provided is that good standards and specifications can be developed and delivered on a competitive basis, said John Olesak, senior director for geospatial intelligence for integrator Northrop Grumman Information Technology.
"That wasn't something we could appreciate six or seven years ago, when you'd find 20 or 30 champions [with ideas for] different states of the art," he said. "Now we can get 150 or more very energetic people willing to involve themselves in a demonstration, and companies and government agencies offering to fund them."
All in all, the OGC open consensus and collaboration process has so far proven to be "exactly the way to go," said NASA's Bambacus. "The key is that all [geospatial] systems be able to work with each other," she said. "I think we'll get there. It won't be painless, but this is the correct way."
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at [email protected]
Open GIS Consortium: Bridging geospatial data
Participating agencies: Most federal agencies with interest in geospatial data are members of the Open GIS Consortium Inc. (OGC). At the highest level (strategic member), the Federal Geographic Data Committee, NASA and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency are part of an eight-member panel. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey are principal members.
OGC recently added new membership levels for state and local government agencies. There are eight membership levels overall.
Nature of information exchange:
The goal is to enable geospatial, or
location-based, data to be used by various applications no matter what the original
format was. Users will access data on the Web from both U.S. and international sources.
Information technology solution: A set of publicly available interface specifications that allow for commercial, interoperable geospatial solutions and services.
Cost: OGC will not reveal specific funding figures. However, membership fees comprise only about 30 percent of the consortium's overall budget. Other revenue is provided through sources such as consulting fees, matching funds and in-kind contributions. Individual sponsors fund pilot projects, which test OGC-developed interface specifications in real-world settings. Phase 1 of a Critical Infrastructure Protection Initiative involving the Detroit/Windsor, Ontario, area cost some $300,000 and was sponsored by USGS, GeoConnections (led by Natural Resources Canada) and General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems.