What do you learn in a community-building exercise when the community building almost fails to happen?
One obvious answer is "Ahh, forget it. We are none of us perfect. Try again and it'll be better". Another is "Well, you guys have failed sometimes; cut some slack to the others". Both are fair answers. But the question itself, and the quality of the answers, underpin a more crucial aspect of the governance of 'bottom up' SDI's, namely how do we fare when, later on, there are services over which we've built our own value-adding services and, tomorrow, the service custodian goes out of business, so to speak: a change of policy, a shift in budgets, loss of key personnel. Any number of reasons might pertain, but suddenly our customers are no longer happily receiving their service.
The point is that when you expose open-standards services to the web then I can come along and build on your service, adding a new value or servicing a new audiences that you hadn't planned for. Sure, you can argue that I'd be at least slightly daft to build a critical need on your service without some sort of agreement, let alone recognition. Okay, but, when I try to make a phone call to the other side of the world, my success or failure depends on a whole chain of agreement between telco operators, any one of which can fail just when I need the service. To what degree can I blame my local telco? Not much, if the failure is three networks away in Outer Mongolia. Problem is that it doesn't matter to me where the failure is - my call hasn't gone through. I'm an unhappy frustrated customer.
So, Tuesday should have been a neat day - meeting with the secretariat of the Kenyan national SDI, with two purposes were in mind, Firstly, helping them set up for evaluation some open-standards tools for establishing a national metadata archive, and the ability to serve geo-spatial data directly to remote clients (Geonetwork and geoserver, respectively). Secondly - and more importantly for me - engaging KNSDI's help to organise a meeting in September where we hope to get together all the national SDI players in East Africa along with their UN counterparts. The purpose? Try to start mapping the institutional interfaces that will be needed between the national and regional SDIs and the emerging UN spatial data infrastructure counterpart.
The UN is meant to serve member states, and the UN relies upon member states to provide data and services needed to inform and address trans-national and global issues. If a UNSDI's purpose is (amongst other things) to promote interoperability, shall this be on the basis of 'best effort' by the member states? Is the UN obliged to help members meet minimum levels of reliability and accountability? If so, what levels, and who is to measure and ensure them? If not, what is tolerably good enough, and what happens when gaps in data availability or reliability lead to flawed assessments or decisions? These and many more questions require attention, probably over and over as methods and approaches are tried.
So what happened? The Nairobi traffic Gods frowned, and three out of the four KNSDI participants got stuck in a jam. Could happen anywhere, couldn't it? Could as easily have been a delayed flight, a flood, or sick child to deal with. You bet, all very normal and we can schedule around it and (I hope) we can get our regional meeting organized notwithstanding.
But it did seem to me a specially pertinent reminder that, as we in SDI-EA try to promote SDI and build interoperability amongst distributed services, that the fragility of the communications and transportation infrastructures remain a constraint. What does it mean if we can implement a world-class on-line repository for satellite images in Nairobi if operational agencies and NGOs cannot access it precisely when needed? Who is liable if, in three or five years' time, humanitarian services' crucial decisions are delayed by lack of reliable data services.
Tough questions that won't go away if we ignore them. Neither, it seems to me, are they likely to be more easily answered unless we start now to articulate and specify the requirements to which telcos and other service providers can respond on a fair and contractual basis.
Anyway, we were back to KNSDI on Wednesday, had a happy and fruitful meeting to organize the consultation, and John at least got through the Geoserver installation training. We'll still need more time to get Geonetwork in and running for them, but at least we hit this important milestone and - fingers crossed - the KNSDI folk will like it enough to move it across to their production server. I'll be especially pleased if we can go into the September workshop with Survey of Kenya delivering on-line one of their signature framework data layers, like administrative boundaries. That really would be a feather in the collective caps. But only if it can be made reliable.