INSPIRE: We’ve seen the battle of the national authorities; will we now see the rising of the locals?

What can INSPIRE learn from its formative years?
INSPIRE is growing-up. How can we nurture its progress as it penetrates into our local data holdings?

Since the beginning of this century, INSPIRE has had a grand vision for the pan-European use of geographic information to improve decision making within the environmental sector.  But with the initiative reaching its teenage years can we deal with its growing pains?  With the ISA (Interoperability Solutions for European Public Administrations) programme proposing an EU Location Framework (EULF) we can expect INSPIREs influence to penetrate both;

  • deeper –  into the realms of local authorities and commercial data providers ,  and
  • wider –  to serve an increasing number of sectors beyond the Environmental sector where INSPIRE was born.

But what have we learnt from INSPIREs formative years?

Early conflicts:  National data providers vs mandated national authorities

I first engaged with INSPIRE in 2001 in Brussels over the EuroDEM (Digital Elevation Model), the first data set to be harmonised across borders and demanded for free.  The meetings were tetchy.  But those first attempts to provide harmonised data at a “global” level of detail were successful in getting the mapping agencies to work together (prossibly driven more by fear than by commercial gain or altruism).  A common data set has now been available for more than 10 years and a free pan-European set is now in place.

Scary and unpopular at the time, who actually asked for this?

It was the collective nation states across Europe.  Between us all we decided it made sense to be efficient and try to assure interoperation between our geographic data sets.   Success in turning this dream into a programme stemmed from the steely determination of the ECs Joint Research Centre (JRC) team.  Their persistence has now resulted in one of the largest legislated pan-European data management activities of all time.

However, characterised by “inclusiveness” the programme has tried to assure that everyone is heard and those that want to take part can take part.  Sadly this meant that those with the greatest concerns and strongest vested interests took the biggest roles in shaping the implementation of INSPIRE.  An inevitable result was a watered down model that aimed for the highly valued harmonisation, but delivers this slowly and under the burden of caveats that preserved some significant barriers to access.

Lesson 1: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Einstein.  –or, don’t let the custodians of the current statusquo overwhelm your programme.

So the issues in the early years of INSPIREs development stemmed from the mandated national authorities attempts to make INSPIRE principles work with their national executive agencies.  The barriers multiplied in the complexity of the many and varied ways that governments have chosen to organise their national data assets.

Lesson 2: The providers of data respond badly to enforced cooperation.  Lets not make this mistake again!

Future conflicts: The national data initiatives vs the Local Authority data providers

Right now INSPIRE is becoming an enforced set of legislation.  The implementation of the policy covering its 3 annexes stretch out to 2020.  And as we begin to deal with the more thematic data (land use and cover, statistical units, human health etc. http://inspire.jrc.ec.europa.eu/index.cfm/pageid/2/list/7) INSPIRE approaches a new potential flash-point; that between our National Authorities and our Local Authorities.  LAs will be expected, or certainly have the potential, to provide data at the required specification and may want to provide these as compliant services to benefit from the interoperation efficiencies.

In the UK our mixed bag of business models used with the national agencies (like the Ordnance Survey, the Met Office and the Hydrographic Office) have clashed with the ambitions at a local level.  Often data is surrendered by LAs under duress and ultimately (in some cases) sold back to them.  LAs suffer tight budgets, yet invest in expensive data gathering activities only to watch as the national agencies exploit their trading fund status to profit from this data, passing nothing back to the collection process.  Resentment has been strong; a recent flashpoint (now resolved?) was the competing systems of applying unique references to properties and buildings UPRN (by the collective Local Authorities)and TOID systems (by the Ordnance Survey).

Future Bright?

In the UK things look more positive now.  There is a Location Strategy which adopts INSPIRE principles and, at the national level, services are beginning to emerge that are INSPIRE compliant.  The immediate usefulness of such data sets in not always crystal clear (just have a look at the caveats Land Registry have had to place on their INSPIRE index polygons http://www.landregistry.gov.uk/public/guides/public-guide-24#guide-mark-11!), but the potential for ready interoperation grows with each new INSPIRE compliant service.

So can we expect Local Authorities to follow suit and provide data and services to a new set of schemas and through a new set of services?  Will they recognise (and be allowed to share in) the resultant benefits of increased efficiency?

Learning from our previous experience (Lessons 1 and 2) we can only expect this to happen if there is “something in it” for them.  Critically, can the systems LAs employ for increasingly dynamic, aggregated and networked information be well served by INSPIRE compliance?

If INSPIRE is really going to be both deeper and wider it will need to address the emergent issues in a way that motivates at the local level.  Only in this way can INSPIRE assure consistent approaches throughout the hierarchy up to the pan-European level.

Of course the convergence of a proposed EU Location Framework proposed by the JRC and the European Location Framework proposed by the collective of mapping agencies will provide guidelines.  But what’s needed is a practical data exchange mechanism that’s deployed at the local authority level and feeds up automatically into the higher nests of services and data at National and Multi-national levels.

So let’s focus now on those that are already engaged in this data exchange.  Organisations that are motivated to address the gaps in the model to achieve interoperation.  Those that will build INSPIRE compliant services.   Those that will provide platforms transforming and adapting data and services to a common schema and allow efficient data exchange between different parties with a minimal overhead of effort.  Those that will take on the challenge of integrating static and dynamic data feeds.

And lets really learn from the lessons of INSPIRE and prioritise on those that have cut their own teeth meeting the needs at the local level, rather than those with vested interests at the National level.

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