[OSGeo-Discuss] Reflections on role of open source in the UNSDI initiative

Jo Walsh jo at frot.org
Fri Mar 9 08:09:02 PST 2007

dear all,

Last week while visiting ESA I had the privilege to sit at the back of
the United Nations SDI Initiative Global Partners meeting. [0]
I wanted to share some random reflections on the positive stance
displayed towards open source geospatial and open access to geodata
in many of the presentations that I heard there.

http://www.ungiwg.org/ugpm_presentations.htm links to the originals.

Is this 'one SDI to rule them all', or a network of networks of
networks? There seem to be two tendencies inside the UNSDI effort.
One is an aspiration towards global sharing of data and awareness of
our environment, a kind of MetaSDI connecting up the others. In this
context, INSPIRE appears as a nice regional initiative. European partner
organisations are working out INSPIRE practise through UNSDI effort.

On the other hand, are a lot of user stories from the ground: UN
agencies working in areas of market failure and ecological crisis, 
wanting to share and reuse data, reach intense collaboration with one
another and get information quickly from the field into redistribution.

Combined, this produces a lot of enthusiasm and support for open
source geospatial software. Promoting factors are:

- Experience driven. Cultural and practical support for the GeoNetwork
  catalog project originated by the UN FAO. It has a broad installed
  base over many of these agencies, is supporting collaboration now. 
- Fits well with resource scarcity/pressure to maximise value returned 
  from existing resources. Agencies and communities in rapid adaptation
- Ease of gluing different kinds of systems, in an environment where
  installations and standards cant be mandated or centralised. 

Availability and utility of open source geospatial software seems
taken for granted in this community. What impressed itself on me was
the similar statements made about open geodata, calls for base layers
to be available in the public domain, motion towards ease-of-access, 
ease-of-redistribution especially from those working on crisis
management and crisis prevention. Also the constant talk of the
importance of metadata, both to internal processes and to data sharing
efforts: 'No data without metadata' is a meme thats taken solid hold here. 

I speculate that the pro-pragmatic-metadata stance comes about in an
environment where data producers, and data users, are closely and
directly connected, without cultural intermediary layers in between.

Something else that really jumped out at me from the talks is this:
a concern with a past over-emphasis on data collection and analysis
for the purposes of monitoring and reporting, not for prediciton and
collaboration. Data gathering distracts from real operations if it is
retroactive. Data doesn't get full use made of it internally, and is
shared in summary, lossy. A need for tools which make 'monitoring and
reporting' more organically a part of the data collection,
distribution and analysis process. "Organic" production of metadata
right in the hands of the providers is a part of this. 

Looking for SDI to help with realtime decision support and situational
awareness. Looking to bring tools closer to existing 'workflow'
processes. This is something that Tyler has talked of a lot, from an
analyst's perspective, as being missing in the open source stack. 
We make sharp tools for deep experts, or we make friendly tools for
non-experts. Project managers wind up going back to ESRI, and that's
the focus of the ESRI pitch to the UN community, "we provide the tools
that define your workflow and connect fieldwork to web services".
A small collection of quotes that I admired:

"A defining characteristic of the UNSDI is the inability to define, in
advance, what the use cases are going to be."

"Support for GeoNetwork is support for social collaboration."

"Ideally every piece of knowledge has metadata attached."

It would take me as long to sum up Harlan Onsrud's keynote as it took
him to deliver it. He made about the most sense I have ever seen a
person make on stage in such a compressed amount of time. He called
strenuously for an openly available, UN supported set of global base
layers, and the development of "both a Global Commons, and a Global
Marketplace" of geodata. 

The 150-page UNSDI Compendium features a couple of pages about the OSGeo
foundation and its nature and goals. This digested version is super
worth looking at if you want more of the context for all this.

The first day I took a lot of paper notes and in the interests of
completeness have scanned them, 31 index cards originally 1/4 size A4. 
27Mb in total, no guarantees as to legibility. You can print them out
and make them into a little zine and read it on the bus.



[0] Only two friends greeted me with "Jo, *what* are you doing here", 
    and everyone else was to polite to put the thought into words.  
    This is all new context for me and i hope there are not too many 
    ignorance based mis-statements contained in my thoughts. 

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