Saturday, 1 December 2007

Showing the World

Yesterday was one of the coolest and most satisfying in a long time. We finally got to show an international audience that SDI-East Africa is at least taking baby steps and could in the another year or so start walking confidently and even be running, skipping and jumping.

The venue was the 8th session of the UN Geographic Information Working Group (UNGIWG). Long-time readers might recall was that it was at the UNGIWG meeting last year that the first seeds of SDI-EA were planted, then heavily fertilized at the UNGIWG Global Partners' Meeting earlier this year. So it was somewhat satisfying to return to that forum and show that their inspiration had wrought.

The previous post post to this blog noted that, since the East African consultation back in October, there'd been a flurry of inspired activity to actually get data-sharing services on line. Yesterday we were able to show how flood-related data, originating from four different UN agencies (UNHCR, OCHA, FAO/SWALIM, UNEP and GEMS/Water) and hosted on three different servers in Nairobi and one in Canada, could be at least visually integrated to provide humanitarian relief managers with both synoptic and detailed views of potential impacts on refugees and displaced persons in the region. Across a variety of open-source and commercial services, all agreeing to 'speak' an OGC-standard interoperability dialect called Web Feature Services.

These views were previously separately available but never before brought together on demand. We were also able to showcase the crucial role to be played by facilities such as the inter-agency Data Exchange Platform for the Horn of Africa (DEPHA) as a broker publishing data on behalf of agencies that cannot afford or lack mandate to build the capacity to publish data on-line themselves. The KML needed for spinning the showcase up in Google Earth is <here>. Give me a month or so to get back from leave and I'll have equivalent packages for NASA WorldWind, MS Virtual Earth, uDIG and QGIS, all working off the same services

The amazing part is that it worked. Not just the technology, but the message - UN agencies field and regional offices can actually afford the luxury of starting to think about this sort of inter-operation. The technology hurdles are not the insurmountable barrier so often assumed.

Yes, the scenario shown was limited and somewhat contrived. Yes, there were many, many components of a true SDI missing, like the abilities to discover and integrate additional mdata sources, or to discover and display stuff using the correct UN-standard symbols, or even to know the most basic background information about where the data originate or how they can realistically be used. On the other hand, others here in the UNGIWG meeting do Get It and are keen to start plugging gaps in the next year - FAO Geonetwork will work with us to plug the discoverability gaps; OCHA will work with FAO to get symbologies hosted, discoverable and accessible; WFP with the UN Joint Logistics Centre and the ITHACA project will starte getting their transportation data model to integrate automatically to help drive the symbology and portrayal needs. All good, One-UN sort of stuff! I believe we have a viable kernel around which the emerging UN spatial data infrastructure will gain and document its own experiences and growing pains and lessons learned.

Now I just have to convince my bosses to let me keep up my involvement in all this as we move into next year's shiny new work programme!

I'm off on holiday for three weeks. I may or may not be inspired to follow up this post soon - I should: there were some interesting chats with the ESRI rep that bear telling.... If I don't, and happy end-of-year/ mid-winter/ mid-summer/ whatever season to you all