Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Another Reality Zap

One of the goals for SDI-East Africa has been to improve service between the UN bodies in this part of the world and their "external" (a.k.a. non-UN) partners. One of the early potentials has been the Nairobi office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Not only are they major user of geo-spatial data but their extensive field operations mean that they need to share and coordinate on common needs with the likes of UNHCR and OCHA.

So, back on March 26, I noted that we were to be heading off to build some capacity at ICRC. This we then did and, so impressive were the results that we were invited back on Monday to get Geoserver running on a publicly-visible web site. And this is where the proverbial hits the fan, not over technical issues but institutional ones.

ICRC are very rightly concerned about the integrity of their global network operations. These are coordinated from Geneva and are subject to policies originating there. The network administrator's here in Nairobi operate and manage a "black box" that proxies for users on the unsecured portion of their LAN, but does not provide any means for announcing a web service per se. (ICRC Nairobi do not have their own web site, for example). So although Java, Tomcat, Geoserver and the PostgreSQL spatial database back-end could all be installed and demonstrated to be running, there's no way that an outside user could address that machine and see the services.

This, for the first time in the course of the SDI-EA exercise, exposes and instance of where an institution has a programmatic imperative to publish data and is prepared to establish and maintain the services to make this possible, but runs afoul of higher-level institutional policies. I doubt that this will be the last such instance. For ICRC Nairobi it raises two potential courses of action, one being to get ICRC Geneva to review and revise their network policy, the other being to see an outside host for their outward-looking services. Most fundamentally, though, it demonstrates how moving into a web services framework can (and probably will again) expose tensions between different aspects of institutional philosophy. It will be interesting to see how ICRC choose to resolve these.

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