Using spatial data infrastructure to understand landscapes

Effective biodiversity conservation and development planning depends on the ability to map and collect data on the location of important resources, otherwise known as spatial data. Collaboration across organizations to share spatial data can have vast benefits for efficient planning and coordinated decision-making across a landscape. However, governments, ministries, and business do not often share their spatial data. Instead of being exchanged, it is exclusively held by public and private sector organisations that frequently prioritise their individual interests and motivations. Such attitudes are damaging and may lead to land-use conflicts, environmental degradation, and investment risks. If collaboration can be achieved it would encourage early and constructive engagement between conservation and development organisations and reduce the practical stumbling blocks that both parties often encounter.

The comparison of two ministries’ forest cover maps for Indonesia demonstrates low overlap

There are many technical and legal obstacles to open and coordinated spatial data but mostly it is the attitudes of the people in possession of data that hinder progress. For example across East Africa ministries, inwardly focused attitudes persist and are rooted in the belief that spatial data, and the knowledge it enables, are powerful and worth holding onto. These attitudes mean that there are now diverse approaches to managing and using spatial data. The result is that frequently spatial data is not in a format where it can be exchanged easily and therefore is often duplicated, a costly expense that could be avoided.

Countries are increasingly finding solutions to these obstacles. If we take Indonesia’s forestry management as an example, inconsistent and un-integrated spatial data had led to overlapping forestry concessions and rapid deforestation of important bio-diverse areas. So in 2011 the region took pioneering steps towards overcoming these detrimental practices and established its ‘One Map Initiative’. The initiative centered on developing a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI); a framework of geographically linked data, policies, users, and tools connected in such a way that the data can be used efficiently and effectively. Its development bought to global light the importance of the infrastructure to nations for integrating spatial data transparently, consistently, and accurately when managing natural resources.

My research established that, despite their importance, there is no measure of how advanced different countries spatial data infrastructure are. To assess this an index is needed which scores the quality of the different infrastructure components, for example below is a simplified view of what might be scored when doing this. Indexes (Such as Transparency International) are a fundamental tool for visualizing the complexities of reality. They can also communicate the current state of something and progressions towards a goal so are often used to inform policy decisions. By scoring across the three components the index can identify where a country doing well in its data infrastructure investments and where improvements need to be made. This allows funding to be better allocated and applied for so that targeted improvements can be made. 

Next Steps

It is hoped that this research can be taken further and the Index piloted, scoring several countries on their spatial data infrastructure quality. Ultimately, the creation and role-out of an index has the potential to mobilise a collation of donors, investors and NGOs to pressure governments to modernise their capabilities and spatial knowledge.  This would strengthen capacity and demand for integrated land-use planning, with potentially profound long-term benefits for people, the environment, innovation and investment.

A pilot application of this research is planned by Oxford University and WWF-UK. This will involve scoring a set of sample countries from different continents on their national spatial data infrastructure quality using the index developed in my research.

This research was conducted in part fulfillment of the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management and supervised by Dr P. Jepson, University of Oxford and Dr S. Schmitt, WWF-UK

There are many technical and legal obstacles to open and coordinated spatial data but mostly it is the attitudes of the people in possession of data that hinder progress.