Monday, February 16, 2015

Metadata Creation - A Must for Caribbean Organizations

Valrie Grant – MSc, GISP (Author)
Carlton J Smith - (Contributing Editor)

Metadata creation is probably the least attractive task in building datasets in a GIS (Geographic Information System) and hence remains a low priority among dataset developers. Recently, I was having a discussion about Metadata and decided to poll my audience as to whether they created Metadata within their organizations. As it turned out none of the organizations were creating Metadata.  I was not surprised by the results of this informal poll, as unfortunately this is something that I have come to expect. Very few Organizations within the Caribbean actively create metadata. The question though is, why?

What is Metadata?
Metadata documents information about data. It describes: 
  • How a dataset was collected or created
  • When it was collected or created
  • Location it was collected or created
  • Who performed the creation or collection
  • How the data is formatted
  • Any constraints on how the data may be used 
  • Data characteristics including content, condition, accuracy and quality.
Metadata is just like the information you would read on the labels of a drink bottle. On the labels, you could learn about the bottle’s contents: the nutritional values of the drink, the number of calories, the ingredients, whether it contains preservatives, the weight, the company that packaged it and its location, and more. That information is used to make a decision as to whether it is safe to consume this drink or not. Metadata therefore allows us to make a decision on the fitness for purpose of that data.

It is perplexing then, when a GIS department of an organization/entity can simply dismiss metadata creation as being too time consuming. What is further a cause for even greater concern is how an organization would spend thousands of dollars creating datasets but do not ensure that these datasets are delivered with the associated metadata. 

Metadata Benefits
There are many benefits to be derived from creating metadata. Among them are the following:
  • Protecting an organization's resource investment in data creation
  • Creating  institutional memory
  • Countering personnel changes
  • Allows sharing of data with other agencies
  • Savings in  time and money
  • Limiting potential liability
  • Cataloging and discoverability
Why then do so many organizations in the Caribbean fail to create metadata along with their datasets? Could it be they are just not aware of the many benefits of creating metadata? Or do they think compliance with metadata standards is just too complicated? Or is it a simple case where the organization's business process maturity has not progressed to the point where it ought to be?

Whatever the reasons, as GIS professionals it is our responsibility to guide the change in current practices. We must become the change agents and find creative ways to educate and influence the decision makers. Metadata creation must become a mandatory standard within the GIS implementation strategies for all organizations. Metadata standards must be adopted!

Cataloging and Discoverability
Going back to the matter of cataloging and discoverability. Automated cataloging of datasets depends heavily on the availability of datasets' metadata. Automation improves productivity and facilitates faster time to decision with less susceptibility to human error. Information systems are now designed with the ability to generate intelligence from the data presented. Metadata deepens that process and enhances the quality of the intelligence produced. Automated discovery of data is facilitated by having metadata conforming to specific standards. 

Discoverability facilitates the creation of a vast network of information stores that can grow intelligently because within itself is the ability to discover, create linkages and extend intelligence. The concept of Semantic Web now becomes more real that is “… a common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries."

Getting There
We need to get everyone to appreciate that metadata creation becomes less complicated and time consuming when standards are adopted. The focus would then shift to ensuring that standard practices are compliant with international requirements.  While there is no single strategy or approach to achieving full compliance, there are some important steps in this process:
  1. Research the practice of those at the forefront of the GIS industry
  2. Develop internal metadata standards that complies with recommended best practice
  3. Develop an organizational implementation plan
  4. Conduct metadata workshops
  5. Select appropriate Metadata editing tool
  6. Require contractors and data developers to adhere to defined metadata standards
Adequate metadata development requires enforcement of implemented standards and calls for commitment. There is no way around it if we want to be part of the “Semantic Web”. 

In the past, shortsightedness of decision makers has cost the Caribbean region much of its advantages - loosing out to other regions of the world.  This is an opportunity to assist in developing and building the Spatial Data Infrastructure of the Caribbean region. Let's not loose it!

It will take an effective metadata strategy involving cooperative efforts, incentives, and new ideas to make metadata part of mainstream activities within the GIS community of the Caribbean region. Can we go beyond organization and countries to creating a metadata profile for the Caribbean region?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Enterprise GIS for Utility Organizations in the Caribbean – Where Are We?

Valrie Grant – MSc, GISP (Author)
Carlton J Smith – MSc MIS, PMP, CISA (Contributing Editor)

Recently, I was facilitating a GIS (Geographic Information System) Training for a utility organization within the Caribbean region. During the training, participants started to speak about the workflows they presently use, the various software within the organization, their having to be converting data between different formats, etc. What became very obvious was that this organization is suffering from software overload, departments operating in silos, segmented workflows, and a clear indication that they need to have a comprehensive Enterprise Needs Assessment and Requirements study done. It was quite apparent that there was an absence of Strategic Information Systems Planning or the implementation of the results of such planning and hence what came out from the participants was quite reflective of the general lack of appreciation of the critical role Enterprise GIS plays within organizations today.

It was dejavu as this is a story I have heard and seen a dozen times across the Caribbean region. Granted, this organization has a GIS unit with desktop GIS software and they produce some maps and reports, but they seem not to appreciate that there were other utility companies within the region where GIS is being used as a critical part of their business processes – from tracking and managing assets, supporting the production and transmission design process, to being used as a key tool in business operations; for example Outage Management, Strategic Capacity Planning and to organize and streamlined inspection and maintenance programs. But even for these organizations, are they there yet? Are these organizations maximizing their investment in GIS and other Spatial Technologies to provide real Enterprise value and benefits?

Let’s look at some of the benefits of incorporating Enterprise GIS as part of the Strategic Information Systems planning within organizations.

GIS has the ability to eliminate inaccuracies and inefficiencies connected with:
  • The proliferation of maps and data of differing content, accuracy and forms of representation.
  • Duplicative and counterproductive efforts of employee effort in the creation, organization, maintenance, management and utilization of maps and asset data in isolated silos. Instead of efforts focused on keeping one set of data correct, man-hours are wasted keeping several sets of possibly fragmented data.
  • Redundant and sometimes conflicting tasks and workflow resulting from the operations of isolated silos resulting in inconsistent or, incomplete maps and asset data.
  • Delayed and ineffective decision making resulting from incomplete, or even conflicting views of what the true picture is within the organization.
    Enterprise GIS can unify the business processes within organizations – in this case utility companies can present a common operating picture. Enterprise GIS is the sum of the coordinated personnel efforts working in tandem with integrated systems that support and promote geospatial data development and access across an organization. In the context of utility companies; another way of putting it is that an Enterprise GIS exists when spatial data is readily accessible and effectively used in business processes across the organization to:
    1. Support daily business operations
    2. Extensively utilized in making critical intelligence driven Strategic Decisions
    Over the past few years, the term Enterprise GIS has become more common in the GIS community. This is a clear reflection of the value to be derived at the Enterprise level.

    There has also been a number of changes in recent years that is allowing Enterprise GIS to be a much more attainable goal for organizations and particularly utility companies.

    These include:
    • New Technology
    • Easier Deployment Options
    • Increased Access to a variety of data sources
    • Increased demand from consumers for organizations to be instantaneously aware of the state of service delivery at a specific location at a given time

    Why would a Utility Organization want to embark on Enterprise GIS? There are many benefits to doing so.

    The nature of utilities will always include delivering services over large geographical areas with several departments and units responsible for managing different aspects of service development/production, service delivery and service maintenance. In addition, there is customer billing and payment collections. Often when a large number of assets and resources are utilized in field work and particularly in emergencies, precise coordination via location aware data and systems are critical. So clear benefits include:
    • Integrates geospatial data across multiple departments and serves entire organization
    • Allows connection to anyone who needs access to GI
    • Eliminates data duplication by collecting data once and using many times
    • Reduces data maintenance time
    • Ability to combine related legacy data
    • Improved workflows
    • Effective communication
    • Enforces data security
    • Timely and effective decision making

    Utility organizations must come to the recognition then that the traditional GIS implementation is no longer sustainable as it does not deliver the required benefits for utility organizations. Why then are organizations within the Caribbean not readily allocating resources and embracing enterprise GIS?

    Enterprise GIS initiatives are dependent on obtaining organizational buy-in and delivering measurable results. Have the GIS practitioners within these organizations failed to win over the decision makers and stakeholders to the benefits of embracing enterprise GIS? Have they failed to quantify the benefits of Enterprise GIS initiatives? Have they themselves made the shift from the traditional siloed mindset and now focused at the enterprise level in delivering strategic value?