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ArcWatch: Your e-Magazine for GIS News, Views, and Insights

September 2008

Thought Leader Series

Esri's Nick Land Shares His Views on the Achievements of the European Union's INSPIRE Directive

  photo of Nick Land
Nick Land, Esri Europe's business development manager for national mapping and cadastre agencies.

Nick Land, Esri Europe's business development manager for national mapping and cadastre agencies, recently spoke with Esri writer Jim Baumann about Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe (INSPIRE), a Pan-European spatial data initiative. Land is the former executive director of EuroGeographics, the European association of national mapping and cadastre agencies.

Baumann: Could you briefly describe your involvement in the INSPIRE Directive?

Land: The European Union [EU] began developing the INSPIRE Directive in 2001, and while at EuroGeographics, I was lucky enough to be involved in the various working groups, drafting teams, and the INSPIRE Expert Group that helped to shape the content of the directive. In addition, through EuroGeographics, we were developing Pan-European datasets and gaining experience of the practical difficulties of harmonizing data across Europe—experience that was directly relevant to INSPIRE. It is now very satisfying that the directive has been adopted by the European Parliament and Council and we can all concentrate our efforts on implementing INSPIRE—in other words, on building the European spatial data infrastructure [SDI].

Baumann: What is the goal of INSPIRE?

Land: The primary goal of INSPIRE is to provide better geographic information for the formulation and implementation of European Union community policy on the environment. This requires better coordination among public-sector organizations, enabling information and knowledge from different sectors and different countries to be combined and shared more easily. In short, we need a European spatial data infrastructure to underpin better decision making on the environment.

While the realization of a European spatial data infrastructure means different things to different people, I can envisage a time when Europe will have one of the most impressive geographic information assets and associated services in the world, enabling us to take a Europe-wide, holistic perspective of environmental issues or to drill down to an individual address or land parcel in the cadastre to see how the citizens of Europe are affected—that is, global to local or local to global.

Baumann: Why is INSPIRE needed?

Land: Because environmental problems transcend national boundaries, and their management is a collective, European-wide responsibility. For example, the Danube River flows through 10 countries and its drainage basin includes an additional 9 nations. The river is an important source of drinking water and electrical generation and is one of the 10 primary Pan-European transport corridors. The flooding or pollution of this vital waterway can obviously have a significant impact on many individuals and countries.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that "Danube," the river's English name, is not used by any of the countries through which it flows. This is one of the semantic challenges that the EuroGeoNames project will address in the context of INSPIRE.

The EU is well aware of the need for Pan-European cooperation and collaboration on environmental issues. There are more than 60 different directives issued under the broad category of the environment. GIS is needed to help develop, implement, monitor, and review the different directives. However, although many of the 27 member states in the European Union have impressive geographic information assets at the national, regional, and local levels, there are many challenges in utilizing this information for cross-border or Pan-European needs.

Baumann: What are some of the political, social, and economic problems encountered in developing a Pan-European SDI like INSPIRE?

Land: When coming to an agreement on the directive, most of the focus was on pricing and licensing policies, even though INSPIRE is a so-called technical directive.

Unfortunately, the economic debate within INSPIRE (and elsewhere) is often oversimplified between two extremes: either data should be free or the user pays all. In fact, there is no such thing as free data. The question is really who pays and where should the payment points be? Thus, as is often the case, an end user may not have to pay to view data on the Internet, but this has been paid for somewhere along the chain, perhaps by central government funding or a third party licensing the data from the original provider.

Whatever decision is made—and it varies a lot across Europe—the key is to ensure that maximum use is made of the information and sustainable funding is in place to allow sufficient investment in maintaining it and the associated services. Maintaining up-to-date, fit-for-purpose data is costly. For example, the EuroGeographics members . . . invest in excess of 1.5 billion euros per annum. The end result of all these economic discussions is, however, a pragmatic directive that recognizes the diversity in Europe while providing a framework within which that diversity can be accommodated and can evolve.

While 90 percent of the discussion was on the pricing of data, during my tenure at EuroGeographics, the more difficult and time-consuming problems to resolve were often technical and organizational. These included the different standards and specifications found throughout the EuroGeographics members, resulting in datasets that are inconsistent in quality including content, completeness, accuracy, and time. In other cases, the data did not even exist. Other challenges included encouraging people to work outside their national remit to invest in activities that are marginal to their core business and making available some of their more skilled technicians to work on the necessary projects. Underlying all of this, of course, is an economic (cost-benefit) issue.

Baumann: What are some of the short-term benefits that will be realized during the implementation process?

Land: We have already realized some major benefits. At the political level, there is much greater awareness and understanding of the need to implement both national and European-wide SDIs and, as part of this, the value of geographic information [GI] as an aid to better decision making. Secondly, from the organizational point of view, we are building a collaborative GI community covering the 27 EU member states and the four European Free Trade Association [EFTA] countries, plus the candidate and other neighboring countries, who are all working together toward a common goal. Thirdly, we are starting to agree on specifications (implementing rules, as they are called in INSPIRE), which is no small feat when you consider the number of countries and organizations involved in the process. From a practical point of view, one of the first implementing rules to be implemented will be for metadata, making it easier for users to find, assess, and use the datasets they need for their respective projects.

Baumann: What are the anticipated benefits when INSPIRE is fully implemented?

Land: I see a Europe connected by geographic information in a European SDI that will facilitate better decision making on the environment but also in many other areas such as transport, emergency services, and agriculture. Users will not only be able to identify relevant GI but will be able to access that information according to agreed-on and fair data-sharing policies. And they will be confident that technically they can combine data from different countries across multiple themes. We will have moved on from today's piecemeal approach to an enabling framework (organizational, business, and technical) in which the pieces fit together in a more coherent whole—the European SDI.

Baumann: Would you like to add anything else?

Land: I would like to use this opportunity to thank publicly all those who have championed INSPIRE and are now working on its implementation. We really have come a long way, but there is, of course, much to do in the implementation phase. Striking a balance between the relatively long timescales of the legal process for agreeing on the implementing rules and meeting the demands of users and the associated rapid pace of technical developments will certainly be challenging. I believe this calls for a pragmatic approach to the implementation, including a stronger user focus than is apparent today, more clearly identifying the priority applications and beneficiaries. That said, I think we can all be very positive about the future of GI and GIS in Europe. INSPIRE encourages all of us to view geographic information in a new way—a shared way—which will help unite Europe through geographic information.

Previously published by Geo:International magazine

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