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A layer cake of spatial data, and in a jigsaw puzzle style

September 4th, 2014

During a lunch at the GeoData 2014 workshop, Boulder, CO, USA, June 2014, people sitting around the table began to chat about topics relevant to data sharing, data format, interoperability – all those topics relevant to geoscience data – well, inter-agency data interoperability was the central topic of that workshop. When someone rose up the topic of comparing data sharing policies in USA with those in Europe and China, a few people (those who know me) looked at me and began to smile. Yes, I am confident to say that I have some comments on the geoscience data sharing in Europe.

Before I came to USA I spent about four and half years in the Netherlands working for a PhD degree on geoscience data interoperability . When I looked back, it seems very interesting because I knew nothing about what was happening on data sharing in Europe before I headed to ITC. But the world is a really small cycle. At the second year of my PhD study, I got in contact with a colleague in the Commission for Management and Application of Geoscience Information of the International Union of Geological Sciences, and he worked at the Geological Survey of the Netherlands at Utrecht. I visited him several times and from him I also came to know about the giant data sharing initiative of EU, the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe (INSPIRE).

Initially, what attracted me is some technical details in INSPIRE, especially those surrounding the works on vocabulary modeling and web map services. INSPIRE covers 34 data themes, among which geology is my favorite because geological data is the topic of my PhD work at ITC. And I really appreciated the data specification working group of the Geology theme in INSPIRE, as colleagues in that group offered me so many fresh technical ideas. Then, in my fourth ITC year, when I began to prepare my PhD dissertation and the defense, a guideline ‘Don’t get lost in details, look at the big picture’ inspired me review the INSPIRE from another angle and discuss my ideas with advisors and colleagues at ITC.

I forgot to mention that many such discussions happened during coffee breaks or lunch breaks at ITC (Well, there is no such a culture in the USA). And then, one day, during such a coffee break chat, a view came into my brain – a jigsaw puzzle layer cake – a nice analog of the INSPIRE initiative: the 34 data themes represent 34 layers and the 27 EU nations (in 2011) represent 27 puzzle pieces. The data specifications and implementation rules of INSPIRE are the recopies for making cakes, and the public agencies in EU nations are the cake cooks.

A 'jigsaw puzzle layer cake view' of the EU INSPIRE initiative

This ‘cake’ view sounds like a jest, but I took it seriously and I know in GIScience people used to call data as layer cakes. I drafted a manuscript to describe my view immediately after that coffee break chat, but it was out of my plan that the short article was not published until four years later – actually, just one month before the lunch table meeting at GeoData 2014, and
EU has 28 nations now (Croatia joined in 2013). The article is accessible at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2014EO190006/abstract.

The INSPIRE initiative is combination of bottom-up and top-down approaches. The bottom-up approach is reflected in the works of data specification drafting and technical infrastructure constructions, which represent the consensus of experts from the EU nations. The top-down approach is reflected in the formally issued EU directive for the INSPRE, which makes it a de jure initiative, that is, EU member nations are required to comply with the INSPIRE data specifications and implementation rules when build their national spatial data infrastructures.

USA has a different administrative system comparing with EU. That, more or less, is also reflected in the geoscience data sharing policies and technologies. However, people here also build such data cakes. What can USA benefit from the EU experience and what suggestions can it provide based on its own work? I do not have a single answer now but I hope I will have some comments a few years later. Fortunately, similar to my encounter with the colleague at the Geological Survey of the Netherlands, now I also come to know colleagues at NASA, USGS, NOAA, EPA, USGCRP, and more, who are showing me the picture of geoscience data issues in the USA.

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