Getting Geospatial Data to Meet the Needs of Today and Tomorrow

Cartographers have always made decisions about what should be included on a map. With paper maps, they had to decide on the size of the paper, the map scale, and the symbols used to represent content, among other things. General-use maps were typically derived from the topographic maps made by national mapping organizations, which meant that the derivative maps were always produced at a smaller scale and with less detail than those topographic maps.

When mapmaking underwent automation—which happened in stages—source data had to be organized into similar categories or themes, generally in large databases. These databases could handle a lot of detail, some of which gets presented as additional content on a map. Thus, with digital mapping, it is now possible to create a map from a national mapping organization’s database that is larger in scale and contains more detail than the typical maps produced by national mapping organizations—as long as the resolution of the geographic data is sufficient for the purpose of the map. Again, this decision rests with the cartographer.

In the United States, the creation of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) in the 1990s came out of efforts to transform topographic map data into digital formats. The primary focus of a spatial data infrastructure (SDI) was to organize geospatial data in a way that ultimately expanded the number of geographic datasets available. The idea was to increase the use of authoritative data while minimizing the complexities involved in trying to wield it.

But the current use of geospatial information under the SDI structure often falls short of the project’s original intention. SDIs were initially national in scope, and data needs at the regional and global levels have been growing for some time. What’s more, countries have taken uneven approaches to maintaining the geospatial information needed for SDIs. Therefore, cartographers need to participate in discussions about SDIs, since they understand the nature and uses of data in the digital age.

In many instances, the potential benefits of SDIs were underutilized. Different organizations had varying levels of success in collecting and organizing the data that needed to be included in an SDI. Some countries were never able to create or implement their SDIs for various reasons, including lack of data and insufficient funding. For people who worked in this domain, the NSDI construct seemed to be stuck. It wasn’t delivering what was needed or expected.

For example, user segments and their demands grew with the automation of mapmaking—particularly when users of personal devices like mobile phones became such heavy consumers of map data. The increased use and importance of location-based data led to greater expectations and larger demands. Ultimately, the exclusive focus of SDIs on managing geospatial data neglected other factors necessary for their use.

As mapmaking moved toward automation, the International Cartographic Association (ICA) led in supporting research and development for making that transition possible. One of the ICA’s first efforts was forming the ICA Commission on Advanced Technology, which identified topics that were important for the emergence of digital geographic data and cartographic apps for mapping. Leaders of this commission laid out an agenda that guided the research community, along with national mapping organizations, in addressing the fundamental requirements of transitioning to digital mapping. Two other ICA commissions, the Commission on Data Standards and the Commission on Quality of Spatial Data, developed standards that made the exchange of digital geographic data possible and defined the characteristics for ensuring that digital spatial data was useful and dependable.

Even after many years, ensuring the quality of geographic data is a work in progress. Over time, new functions for the use of SDI data have included research on themes such as generalization and visualization. Whereas paper maps contained all their content in a single view, the digital age offers layers of spatial data themes and forms from which to choose, depending on a map’s purpose and user requirements.

The era of the NSDI brought great changes to national mapping and geospatial organizations as well as to international societies like the ICA. National mapping agencies were no longer confined to the limitations of a map sheet, since a database of geographic information could be used for so many different applications. And that limitless potential offered new research opportunities for organizations including the ICA.

However, the vision for how to use national SDIs has failed to meet expectations. This is primarily because national SDIs have largely revolved around geospatial data—that is, themes, assets, layers, and more. What national SDIs should focus on is the interests of the expanding user base of location-based data, as well as ensuring the sustainability of geospatial data and services.

In 2011, the formation of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) sought to improve how nations manage their geospatial information in the face of changing needs. The group defined 14 fundamental geospatial data themes that most countries typically need; delineated common geodetic reference frames; and outlined how to integrate statistical and geospatial data to address global needs, such as national-level responses to the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and climate change.

These functional efforts uncovered the need to take a more holistic approach in guiding geospatial data management locally, nationally, regionally, and globally. National mapping organizations are dependent on local spatial data. Once a country has comprehensive geospatial capabilities in place, its contributions to regional collaboration can help in responding to collective needs such as security, health, and economic development.

The United Nations Integrated Global Geospatial Information Framework (UN-IGIF), which was created in 2018, specifies nine interrelated strategic pathways that provide a basis for developing, integrating, strengthening, and maximizing geospatial information management. While each pathway contributes to successful geospatial information management, all are linked in one or more ways, resulting in a more holistic approach to delivering geospatial information that is relevant and useful. The UN-IGIF aligns with national priorities and circumstances, making it clear how important geospatial information is to each country. Additionally, the UN-IGIF has inspired related frameworks, including the Strategic Framework on Geospatial Information and Services for Disasters, the Global Statistical Geospatial Framework, and the Framework for Effective Land Administration. All of this is helping countries take a common approach to geospatial data management, increasing the likelihood of developing workable solutions to global problems.

Communication, collaboration, and partnerships are needed to make national geospatial data management work in a global context. Communicating information about the UN-IGIF has resulted in many nations endorsing it, using it as a guide, and even transforming their existing SDIs into the UN-IGIF. If different levels of government can collaborate and partner with each other as well as with the business and academic communities, this elevates stakeholder involvement and ensures wider participation by all sectors. Additionally, increased engagement of national mapping organizations with the UN thematic networks—including the UN-GGIM Geospatial Societies (which the ICA participates in), the UN-GGIM Academic Network, the UN-GGIM Private Sector Network, and the UN Geospatial Network—can boost successful implementations of the UN-IGIF.

What lies before the geospatial community—and particularly cartographers—is a challenge to continue making contributions to geospatial information management and use. Attention is needed at local, national, regional, and global levels. Geospatial information is related to location, and location is best seen via maps. Maps have always been important, and they continue to be relevant for daily use and problem-solving. National mapping agencies need to be supported as they manage geospatial data and work to develop integrated approaches for maximizing the value of using this data in preparing for the future.

About the author

Tim Trainor is a part-time consultant to the United Nations (UN) and is the former chief geospatial scientist for the US Census Bureau. He currently serves as president of the International Cartographic Association. Trainor has extensive experience in cartographic and geospatial topics that include exploring methodological, technical, and substantive issues relating to cartography and the collection, management, and integration of geospatial information. He served as cochair for the UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management and as head of the US delegation to that committee. He was the senior agency official for geospatial information for the US Department of Commerce and was an executive member of the US Federal Geographic Data Committee. He is involved with several professional associations, including the Cartography and Geographic Information Society. Trainor holds a postgraduate diploma in cartography from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, within the Faculty of Science; a master’s certificate in project management from the George Washington University School of Business and Public Management; and a bachelor of arts degree from Rutgers University.