Authoritative geospatial data and future challenges
24—Aug—2022, by Kathrin Lenvain
Article by Asma Idder, CMG LEGAL – Avocats
A cholera epidemic in 1832 resulted in the first application of geospatial analysis when French cartographer Charles Piquet created a map illustrating the disease’s hot spots in 48 arrondissements of Paris. Almost 200 years later, the global geospatial analytics market is projected to grow from $63.61 billion in 2021 to $147.58 billion in 2028 . For decades, national mapping, land registries and cadastral authorities (NMCAs) were considered as the official and reference source of geographic information. Such official data are commonly called ‘authoritative geospatial data’ (AGD), as they contain legal effects and are used by authorities. Yet there is no consensual legal definition of AGD amongst EU Member States, while digitalization hastens the significative arrival of new actors – private sector-based – in the geospatial data industry. The evolution of geospatial technology and the exponential growth of the geospatial data market require changes: the debate surrounding consensual legal definition and processing of AGD at a European scale is open and thriving. Ensuring cooperation between private and public sector-based actors of geospatial data industry is a key element for the geospatial data market’s growth.
The new geospatial data marketplace operated by TOPIO ambitions to answer the data users’ requirements regarding offer, use and processing of geospatial data, while addressing complex issues relevant with AGD and other sources of data and related services.
Commonly understood as data that refers to or contains information about a specific location on the surface of the Earth, geospatial data accuracy has been increasingly improving since 1832. The evolution of information and communication technologies (ICT) and data processing techniques, and the availability of higher resolution data, have led to an exponential growth in geospatial information, met by a significant arrival of new actors. Which leads to new legal matters to consider.
Analyzed to predict, manage, and understand phenomena that affect the Earth and its inhabitants, geospatial data can be used to model climate and weather forecasts, or track and manage urban transportation systems. Geospatial data can also be used to identify archaeological sites, map deforestation and land use, and observe population and animal migration.
Public policies and regulations (economic development, national security…) are also based on a specific kind of important geospatial data (population, infrastructure, environment), which are referred to as ‘authoritative geospatial data’ (AGD) to define any geospatial data containing legal effects, defined, and used by authorities.
For instance, speed limit or red lights are issued and placed based on geospatial data like roads and traffic to avoid accidents and ensure drivers. During Covid-19 pandemic, geospatial data were very useful to governments and health institutions to track the virus contamination course.
For decades, national mapping, land registries and cadastral authorities (NMCAs) were considered as the official and reference source of AGD, in charge of collecting and distributing geospatial mapping, often for a specific and predefined public purpose (taxation, property rights…).
The evolution of geospatial technology and the arrival of new actors – mainly from the private sector – in the geospatial data industry led to a new approach around AGD and its processing. However, while demand for high-quality geospatial data is constantly rising in the private sector, the alarming lack of consensus surrounding AGD definition and processing methodology at a European scale leads to various ways of understanding and interpreting what an AGD is as well as its added value when compared to regular geospatial data.
The variety of definitions and methodologies surrounding AGD amongst EU Member States depicts the cultural and legal differences inside EU single market and create unsteady management and uses of such data. Indirectly, such lack of formalism increases disinterest from professional bodies, which leads to important loss of economic exploitation for EU single market.
Such volatility in AGD understandings, – explained by the legal, institutional, economic, and cultural differences and characteristics of each Member State, even of each region sometimes –, leads to a lower data quality and a declined level of transparency and fairness. Indeed, national and local public decisions and regulations are made and based on AGD, which are not defined and processed in the same manner by each EU Member State. Transportation, health, or immigration are important sovereign issues requiring specific (and lengthy) regulations that are potentially signed and implemented amongst several countries or international organizations.
For an industry generating billions of euros per year, issuing a global legal framework is crucial. And even more crucial is for legal professionals and policy makers to come to a global consensus around geospatial data definitions.
In this regard, nonprofit geospatial data advocacy organizations European Spatial Data Research (EuroSDR) and EuroGeographics, along with Dutch research university KU Leuven surveyed researchers and practitioners in NMCAs across Europe with the aim of pooling a single consensual EU approach-based definition and interpretation of what an AGD should be considered as. From the survey, the following characteristics  of AGD arose, mainly referring to the legal and quality aspects of it:
The above-mentioned characteristics show that the value of an AGD (when compared to regular geospatial data) in one’s mind refers to ‘trust, data quality, guaranteed data usage, guaranteed public service usage, enhanced interoperability at technical, semantic, organizational and legal levels’.
It is interesting to note that several of those characteristics can actually be used to qualify geospatial data produced or provided by private sector-based entities or companies.
The arrival of private-based stakeholders is an ideal opportunity to consider private compagnies as potential AGD providers or contributors. Especially in the current European policy on data openness, exchange and sharing between Member States administrations and amongst EU citizens.
Indeed, for over a decade now, EU preaches for data sharing with the help of legally binding tools such as regulations and directives. Such regulations highlight the European approach of geospatial data industry.
Conclusions of studies and research seem unanimous in this finding: geospatial data users fear a lack of interoperability between different initiatives and seek high quality, easy-to-access and readily available data.
Therefore, alignment between the various data initiatives and cooperation between the public and private sector will be a key challenge in ensuring that geospatial data users get value from the data in an environment where geospatial technology becomes more and more sophisticated.
TOPIO will be part of this change.