To Be FAIR: Why the Geospatial Commission’s National Geospatial Data Standards Register is so important

The Geospatial Commission recently published its UK Geospatial Data Standards Register to encourage the democratisation of access to geospatial data. The Register recommends standards for vector, raster, gridded and tabular geospatial data, metadata, coordinate reference systems and point gazetteers. The Register has been developed in line with FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) principles to encourage the coherent and consistent sharing of geospatial data and to empower the geospatial community in all aspects of Government. Adherence to these standards will go a long way to ensure that geospatial data is accessible in line with FAIR principles. 

Data standards can be a minefield, with nearly 100 geospatial data standards across multiple organisations that promote their own “open” standard. So knowing when to use what standard to enable interoperability and re-use is tricky for anyone other than deep specialists. This Register seeks to prioritise and promote which standard should be used, based on extensive user research across the UK public sector, and is a welcomed move forward.

The Register also recommends that these standards should be used in conjunction with current INSPIRE guidelines, which in turn recommend the application of open standard web interfaces (including OGC Web Map Services, Web Feature Services and Catalogue Services for the Web). The consistent and coherent integration of standard interfaces providing geospatial data in the standard formats is the key part of making geospatial information FAIR.

A FAIR Approach in Practice

Open Standards is at the heart of Envitia’s software and solutions, in line with FAIR principles, making data held in various silos and formats available via common standard formats and interfaces. 

One recent example is the Feature Database System (FDBS), developed for The UK Hydrographic Office. Information vital to planning maritime tasks is held in different silos of varying quality and format. In fact, information on the same real-world maritime feature can be held in several silos, recording attributes of that feature that are relevant to that particular silo. 

FDBS automatically extracts and transforms each silo’s data into a common unified format and publishes the data to the wider community using standard interfaces (including OGC WMS, WFS, CSW and Vector Tiles, aligning with INSPIRE guidelines) and in standard data formats (including GeoJSON, GeoPackage and GeoTIFF, aligning with the Geospatial Data Standards Register).

This approach ensures that users have access to the most accurate and current information whenever they need it, confident that the data is authoritative, deconflicted and harmonised, providing insights simply not possible for users of the individual silos or datasets.

The recommendations of the Register are therefore only part of the solution in practice. While it is welcomed that the Register recommends certain formats and standards, it does not mandate them – risking non-compliance – and it lacks direction on the governance, management, harmonization or deconfliction of the data. It is these qualities that would provide the most significant returns on investment for the taxpayer.

The Importance of Metadata

The Geospatial Data Standards Register also recognises the importance of metadata to make data FAIR. If the data is not sufficiently described by its metadata, it simply cannot be found, accessed, or reused. The Register recommends the application of metadata records to be compliant with the GEMINI profile of the international standard ISO 19115:2003(Geographic Information – Metadata). This ensures that the metadata describing any data item will be understood and searchable by any human or system that itself understands the GEMINI profile.

Promoting the importance of Metadata is another welcomed step forward by the Geospatial Commission. Developing the use of effective metadata is a large part of what we do at Envitia: helping people and organisations enrich their metadata and maximising its role in creating interoperable and reusable data sets and services.  

For example, Envitia designed the Ministry of Defence Geospatial Metadata Profile (MGMP) which was implemented across Defence as the common metadata standard. MGMP is complementary and interchangeable with GEMINI and has been applied to several live programmes, including FDBS.

Conclusion: Is there a Case for Mandating Open Standards?

Envitia has promoted the principles of FAIR for two decades – much longer than the FAIR principles have been codified. We are passionate about making data – of any nature, including geospatial – open, discoverable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable.

We look forward to continuing to drive forward real-world implementations of FAIR principles, and to help shape how the UK’s Geospatial Data Standard Register evolves in the future.

We would welcome the UK Government mandating rather than recommending Open Data Standards to ensure that public sector data is in line with FAIR principles rather than in proprietary formats that only work with certain vendor systems. When partnered with attempts to improve governance, harmonisation and deconfliction, this will enable data to be truly interoperable and be used, and re-used, across multiple systems and departments with confidence in the authority and currency of the data, delivering far greater economic value to the nation. 

Written by Keith Foster, Envitia Product Manager


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