Increasing Data Value for Consumer Needs
It was 2008 when I first ventured into the world of INSPIRE; the European data sharing initiative for improved policy making on environmental matters, which affects all public sector organisations that collect, maintain, publish and use location-based environmental data. Mindful of the many challenges facing organisations that wish to share data and communicate information more effectively, I was immediately aware of the ambitious, yet desirable nature of the goal that the EC Directive was setting the community.
Beset with reams of regulation, specification and guidance documents, INSPIRE can appear daunting, and the mere mention of one’s ‘mandate to comply’ has the potential to alienate. This is why in 2009, at various events and forums, I started to discuss “Obligation versus Opportunity” and the need to look beyond the initial costs and intricacies, and to not view it as yet another in a long line of regulatory chores, but to consider “what’s in it for us?”, “is a return on investment attainable?”, “what is the tangible business value?”
It seemed likely that each individual, each organisation and each nation would relate to their own benefits, so back then I was optimistically hopeful that these questions would, given time, receive positive and plentiful answers. It is pleasing therefore that evidence of this is increasingly revealing itself; many examples of which having been showcased at this year’s INSPIRE conference. For me, a small but meaningful piece of work earlier this year provided its own reassurances that the aspirations and guidance of INSPIRE are well positioned, and that this guidance is effectively empowered by open standards, and particularly those of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC).
Working in association with Gabriel Information Solutions and HL Consulting, we embarked on a short analysis exercise for the Environment Agency’s (EA’s) Data, Mapping, Modelling and Information team. The study assessed the usability characteristics of the EA’s ‘DataShare’ service (www.geostore.com/environment-agency); a source of both EA and other (Defra-family) data. The aim was to identify and implement demonstrable ideas for improvement based on the requirements and guidance of INSPIRE, and OGC standards.
But first up, what did the end users think of the current service and what would their wish list for improvements be? Foremost in the user feedback received was “what a great facility DataShare is”. To have self-service access to a wide and growing variety of environmental spatial data is without doubt a gift that the community welcomed. All users interviewed shared this view and all were eager to pass on their thanks to the EA for making such a service available. Thereafter, suggestions for improvement were offered constructively and common observations soon materialised across a number of themes.
One such theme honed in on the portrayal of data, via the DataShare view service (based on the OGC Web Map Service (WMS) specification), with common user requests emerging, such as: “We need practical default styles”; “Representations should be based on feature classifications”; “Can we share and use alternate community presentation styles”; “Legends are needed to convey data meaning”, “Present styles that complement multi-layer viewing”.
So how do those needs relate to what INSPIRE has to say about view services and portrayal? The Implementing Rules require the use of open standards and in the case of View Services, specifically OGC WMS, but beyond that there are few other mandatory requirements. However, the (optional) Technical Guidance (TG) documents recommend that a default portrayal style must be provided and similarly that legends must be provided as a minimum. The TG also recommends the use of the OGC Styled Layer Descriptor (SLD) specification, which provides a rich assortment of capabilities for data representation, including themeing data based on feature and attribute value classifications. Within the INSPIRE Data Specification documents further guidance is provided on what styles the domain communities might require and in some cases, such as the Natural Risk Zones specification, actively promote the need for classified views based on features’ attribute values. The data specifications also acknowledge the breadth of user scenarios and encourage communities to come together, to agree and share ideas and common styles, based on the standards. This collaboration is particularly pertinent for representation schemes for multi-layer views. These representation themes, although specifically not considered by the INSPIRE documents (whose scope is intra-theme), are something readily supported by the SLD standard. So it was strikingly apparent that there was helpful correlation between what INSPIRE was recommending, what the DataShare end users were needing and what the open standards supported.
Using the guidance from INSPIRE and the readily available tools that supported the OGC standards, it was then relatively easy to stand up example test services to successfully demonstrate viable approaches to facilitating all of the requested user needs. These built on the established OGC WMS platform, utilising the OGC SLD specification and associated Symbology Encoding and Filter Encoding specifications to achieve the desired outcomes. With options for the data publisher to provision usable and alternate styles for users to choose from, or for communities to set up controlled registries of styles to use, or for users to simply define their own, the standards offer rich functionality and flexibility. There is more to be done and considered to roll these out into a production environment, but we confirmed that the guidance and standards are capable and applicable to the requirements, and this is a great first step.
So what of the cost/benefit of improving the quality of data portrayal based on these user requests? Why is it worth doing? Quite simply, it would remove the need for user communities to repeatedly download full datasets and then gain the necessary permissions to re-host the data with the styles useful to them; this duplication of effort and system resources creates problems of synchronisation and downstream currency of data, and it presents the risk of inconsistency of information across different public sector bodies.
As Stefan Carlyle, while serving as Strategy & Engagement Manager, Environment Agency, noted [Big Data Insight Group, June 18 2013], “Essentially, too many public sector boards have limited their engagement in the project to merely uploading certain data sets, warts and all, into the central data.gov.uk repository and left them there for others to perhaps stumble across. Improving data quality will be a fundamental step in unlocking the value that data holds for the public sector and beyond”.
Although talking of the Open Data initiative at the time, the remark is equally relevant to INSPIRE. It cannot just be about ‘chucking out data’; effective data sharing necessitates good data management to assure the quality of data content, and it requires thoughtful publication, to increase the information's usefulness across a range of usage scenarios.
So the opportunity is there for organisations to not just comply with the requirements of INSPIRE, but to also embrace its guidance in order to better meet the needs of their user community and deliver increased value. The ability to do this quickly and affordably is assisted by the open standards of OGC and the growing number of tools that effectively implement these standards to the benefit of all.
About the author. Matt Beare is Director/Owner of Beare Essentials Ltd.; a common sense approach to data management for business improvement. As Chair of the OGC Data Quality working group and member of the Business Value Committee, Matt is eager to see open standards continue to support the effective management of data and the sharing of information to meet the requirements of the consumer.