Real-world Lessons in Organizational and Technological Interoperability for Geographic Information Infrastructures

John Evans, Ph.D
MIT Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning
Phone/Fax: (617) 734-1512
Mail: 1404 Commonwealth Ave. #4, Brighton, MA 02135-3722

What does it take to share geographic information? It's unusual for planners or public managers to share information with each other across organizational boundaries. It's rare despite the high cost of geographic information and its potential for widespread re-use; despite the advent of ubiquitous data networks; and despite ecological relationships across jurisdictions, industries, and hierarchies. One difficulty seems to be a lack of technological and organizational infrastructures to help people make use of each other's information resources in their work. Building such infrastructures presents a number of organizational and technological interoperability challenges, as I found by (i) conducting an organizational case study among natural-resource agencies in the U.S. and (ii) building a networked orthophoto data service on the National Spatial Data Infrastructure. These two research thrusts together provide insights that are both grounded in real-world contexts, and sensitive to coming technological changes, to help public agencies articulate strategic choices of technology, organizations, and policy that will reap the promise of interoperability for geographic information sharing and improved ecosystem management. Further details on both of these research programs, and their synthesis, may be found in my doctoral dissertation (May 1997), available on the Web at
First, the case study compared the technological and organizational characteristics, impacts, and growth patterns of three regional inter-agency infrastructures: the Great Lakes Information Network, the Gulf of Maine Environmental Data and Information Management System, and the Pacific Northwest StreamNet and its predecessors. The three cases highlight the importance, in launching geographic information infrastructures, of a convergence between shared norms, resources, and people to articulate these norms and leverage the resources. Once launched, the cases show, inter-agency infrastructures geographic information risk getting stuck at an experimental, "scaffolding" stage of development, with few tangible impacts on planning and policy. At these and other choice points, they need someone to integrate participants' many views of information sharing, so as to grow the organizational and technological complexity needed to affect real decisions, and to sustain this complexity over the long term. Indeed, in these cases the choice of a growth path and the unfolding of other decisions over time were generally more important than a priori blueprints or success factors. Nonetheless, a "laissez-faire" approach was inadequate: some evolving standard (a geographic reference system, or functional standards such as metadata or queries) was important to build convergence among participants. Finally, the three cases suggest that deeper-than-expected organizational changes are needed to capitalize on an online data services model of information sharing, in which data management and communications are merged, and interdependence and teamwork govern a complex "ecosystem" of government agencies.

The second thrust of the research instantiated the data services model for geographic information sharing.  We used simple, freely-available software components to build a networked orthophoto browser that provides an efficient, interactive, multi-resolution service for widely-useful geographic information, in a way that easily integrates with client-side mapping software. This service, accessible on the Web at, has opened the use of previously quite arcane orthophoto data to a much wider audience, and encourages convergence of geographic data among different sources. It also suggests an expanded conceptualization of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) as a collection of networked services and not just static datasets, and foretells a need to shift the standards focus from static data formats and structures to newer functional standards that will govern the interactions between information systems. Building the browser, and "spin-off" browsers for other orthophoto series, also highlighted the many design choices implied by a loose coupling between clients and servers, and the ephemeral nature of these choices given ongoing technological changes. In particular, this experience suggests that designers of interoperable geographic data services will often face the following challenges: providing useful features vs. reaching a wide audience; building for a widely diverse set of users and uses; tuning the service for current server hardware, networking bandwidths, and client software; and adapting these choices to a changing context.* The orthophoto browser also provides a tangible view of the organizational changes implied for the three cases and other similar contexts, as agencies using each other's data services share responsibilities for information collection and management.

Together, these two sets of findings show that in building geographic information infrastructures, a standard is not just a rule restricting the kinds of data, interfaces, or languages that the infrastructure will support, but also a resource that enables certain kinds of joint work through information sharing. Thus, particularly in the geographical arena, choosing what parts of the infrastructure "stack" to standardize, and what parts can remain heterogeneous, is a complex, dynamic decision that defines the constituency of the information sharing mechanism (who can take part in it) vs. its performance (what they can do with it). These findings also show that new organizational structures and relationships ("shadow organizations") are both a requirement and a consequence of effective geographic infrastructures, and that agencies face the dual challenge of redistributing information responsibilities and balancing incremental vs. radical change.

* In particular, J. Ferreira's I-20 position paper presents several emerging interoperability shifts that represent near-future directions for the orthophoto browser.