by David Schell

Web Technologies: Lessons from Building the Spatial Web

Jun 01, 20033 mins

The Open GIS Consortium (OGC) works to establish interoperability in the complex industry sector that focuses on geography. OGC’s members have created an innovative process for communication among geospatial technology users and providers, a process that opens the vast technological richness of this community to a broader set of users. The process also provides an innovative model in which published user requirements directly influence standards and products.

The animus of OGC’s process is that interoperability among computing processes that deal with geographic issues is essential if computers are to help enterprises and individuals work with the concept of place. Like phonetic speech, maps are old information technology—older, we can assume, than alphabets. Human beings enjoy an innate ability to picture themselves at a high virtual vantage point from which to better see and understand the world.

Interoperable geoprocessing leverages this particular power of imagination. OGC’s members use the word spatial to emphasize that many uses of digital spatial data don’t involve geo-“graphic” representation. An automated phone call to residents near the site of an industrial accident, for example, uses spatial data but doesn’t involve a graphic. But clarity, orientation and behavior in many activities require an understanding of where people and things are in space and time. Therefore, a technology that leverages our spatial abilities surely has great significance for human understanding and performance.

Interoperability makes it easier to integrate powerful spatial analysis and display capabilities into tasks. Interoperability also lets data, components and services create a growing market of combinable resources. Though the Web is not the only interoperability platform addressed by OGC, those data components and services are the elements of the spatial Web.

This spatial processing layer on top of the Web is an extraordinary open platform on which to develop commercial and social value. But perhaps more significant than OGC’s interoperability platform is the method by which it is being created.

OGC introduces interoperability into a market stunted by ultracompetitive vendors’ proprietary marketing and product strategies and by essential differences between types of spatial technologies (such as GIS and earth imaging). The consortium evolved a program of cooperative test beds and pilot projects in which users encourage technology suppliers to develop and test specifications and architectures that solve specific industrywide interoperability problems. This is a fast process.

In 2000, for example, after Environmental Protection Agency reps shared with OGC their dream of real-time environmental modeling based on Web access to thousands of geolocated sensors, it took consortium members just five months to produce SensorML and other Sensor Web components. Vendors promptly implemented the consortium-adopted interfaces and encodings in products to provide users with the interoperability they will demand.

OGC repeatedly shows how technology users can motivate competing vendors to reach agreement on a common interoperability approach. Those technology providers, of course, now enjoy new and expanded markets based on the open, global interoperability platform that supports unprecedented integration of spatial capabilities into information systems.

How might that process impact the evolution of platforms in the larger IT world? We’ll see. It works, however, and it solves problems that have always bedeviled IT users. Sophisticated players in the IT community are recognizing that sophistication includes awareness of the need for a shared vision of critical resources—such as the Internet, and also an open spatial infrastructure—that are held in common.