August 19, 2009 By Mary Jo Wagner
Since 2000, traditional business has become all about the "e" - e-commerce, e-procurement, e-government -- and the tangible benefits that technology has delivered to public agencies, private businesses and residents.
For spatial data managers and providers, the "e" has typically equated to geoportals -- online anchor sites offering a wealth of spatial data and map layers for users to access, view and order. Though the data transparency and collaborative environments created by online spatial distribution systems can improve productivity and efficiency, organizations have often implemented their self-service concept with a notable "e" missing, and that is "e-delivery". Instead, online spatial distribution has typically meant online ordering and offline fulfillment.
"Allowing users to view spatial data online and request needed data sets is a fairly easy proposition," said Sean Simpson, GIS manager for the city of Surrey's engineering department in British Columbia. "However, manually fulfilling those common, repetitive requests can tax resources and inhibit your ability to serve customers efficiently."
The offline fulfillment model has dominated, in part, because there haven't been Web and GIS tools that are sufficiently robust to remove the human component of extracting, transforming, integrating and distributing data. Particularly problematic has been finding a way to resolve interoperability issues around diverse data formats, which has left many organizations with a "Henry Ford" type of online offer, says Don Murray co-founder of Vancouver-based Safe Software, a spatial "extract-transform-load" (ETL) company.
"A key challenge to full-service spatial data distribution is finding an efficient way to distribute data in the format or data model that is immediately usable to varied user communities," Murray said. "Different user communities have different needs, and they need to see the data in different ways. That has often led to data offers similar to Henry Ford's approach when he first introduced his automobile line, which was, 'You can have your car in any color as long as it's black.' So users can order data online, but then they are left to their own devices to restructure the data themselves."
With the heightened visibility of spatial information shown by high-profile aggregators and distributors like Google Earth, customers from varied user communities look to and often expect that same immediacy from local government and other providers of spatial data. They want to be able to view data online, choose only the data sets and formats they need, order them and then download the files.
Indeed, the unrelenting demand for online information "drive-throughs" has challenged organizations to transition their partly self-service online distribution systems to full-service ones -- from viewing to e-delivery. Thanks to substantial improvements in Web technology and GIS tools -- particularly spatial ETL tools -- organizations in Canada, Europe, the United States and New Zealand are triumphing over significant challenges to automate data processing and create dynamic, user-friendly information drive-throughs that quickly and intelligently serve both internal colleagues and external customers.
Surrey's COSMOS Web GIS system allows users to search for data, order only the specific data set they need, pay for it and download it. Europe's transnational LoG-IN system enables a host of users in Belgium, Germany and the UK to instantly and securely share data in whatever format they need. The Coast Survey Office (OSC) of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers GIS-ready nautical charts for immediate download and integration into GIS workflows through its ENC Direct service. And in New Zealand, Landcare Research's geoportal provides environmental data for automatic download in different formats and coordinate systems.
Although managers of these systems did not experience the same development challenges, they all were motivated by one primary driver: relieving their limited personnel resources from the time-consuming administrative tasks of processing data requests.