Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Towards Geographic Information (GI) Policy Development in the Caribbean

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

The ability of GIS to provide consistent, accurate and accessible quantitative information, makes it well-placed to be a key tool in evidence based decision making and in the formulation of sustainable development policies.

This fact is being recognized by several countries in the Caribbean region and is the main reason for a number of Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDI) initiatives across the region. National governments are recognizing that location information is critical in managing everything that falls within the remit of governing.  Like most types of infrastructure, SDIs also provide a platform for economic development and is a key infrastructure in realizing spatially enabled societies; that is, a society that is spatially aware of its environment and consumes spatial information as part of their normal daily decision making and personal life.

Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI)
A Spatial Data Infrastructure is the “… collection of technologies, policies and institutional arrangements that facilitate the availability of and access to spatial data.” The aim of an SDI is to facilitate the ability of stakeholders to share, access and discover spatial information, and therefore, needs to evolve in tandem with the development of available network technologies (Rajabifard, 2012) [see previous blog on metadata].

Spatial data has traditionally been used by public organisations, businesses and academia. However, there is now a paradigm shift and spatial data is increasingly being used, created and shared by ordinary citizens; and an open data posture with open access to information encourages this paradigm shift. Hence, some aspect of Geographic Information (GI) or Geographic Information Systems – which serves up spatial information for consumption; is used virtually every day. It should not be then difficult to understand that when an infrastructure becomes critical to societal and economic development, national policies must guide its development and implementation. To do otherwise means chaos will reign and maximum benefit will never be realized. In addition, as the SDI facilitates the creation, distribution and usage of spatial data – the access to and availability of such data may be impacted by data accuracy and quality concerns, privacy concerns, intellectual property concerns and appropriate usage concerns. Hence, it is very critical that national SDI or Geographic Information (GI) policies development be at the forefront of any SDI initiative.

Where are the Caribbean Nations in SDI/GI Policy Development?
Within the Caribbean region, there are significant shortcomings in the legal framework that exists to provide effective regulation or even basic guidelines on spatial data matters. Development and implementation of national policies to support Spatial Data Infrastructure is critical for a coordinated effort to standardize the processing of spatial information across governments and other entities and to create authoritative spatial data sources.

Currently there are at least 5 Caribbean States that have pursued or are actively pursuing policy development initiatives – Jamaica, Belize, The Bahamas, Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana. Awareness of the importance of SDI and the development of the requisite regulatory policies has certainly increased in the region. However, there are still a number of Island states which lag behind. While some countries may progress slower than others, all need to be part of the journey towards policy Development and ultimately sustainable SDI.

At the 3rd High Level Forum on United Nations Global Geospatial Information Management held in Beijing, China, October 2014; having met in the context of the United Nations initiatives to enhance cooperation in geospatial information management to support global sustainable development – a resolution was adopted that spoke directly to the matter of formulating and developing sustainable SDI policies. It stated that the group resolved to ‘overcome the challenges in implementing geospatial education and awareness, policy, standards and frameworks by engaging our professional community, industry and research related centres and institutes.’

SDI/GI Policy Development Benefits
Developing Geographic Information Policy will provide the necessary legal framework for the industry to develop and thrive. In turn, the value and importance of spatial information can be realized.

It also will establish the guiding principles and strategies to enhance accessibility, help in developing or promoting geospatial standards, avoid duplication of effort and hence utilise limited resources in the most efficient manner. Further, it will enhance the cooperation and coordination among agencies in identifying and facilitating the development of useful data for research, planning, sustainable development, disaster management, environmental management and climate change among many other areas – an issue recognized as being critical by the US Senate in their Bipartisan Geospatial 

Policy development should therefore be our collective concern. How can we move policy development forward within the region? Should we create regional guidelines for developing GI policy? Do our leaders recognize the importance of GI policy?