Archive for November, 2008

Wrapping up UNGIWG

UNGIWG concluded with another half day of openness. In the morning we heard about the geo activities of our hosts in Vienna .. UN Office of Outer Space Affairs, Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The CTBTO presentation was especially fascinating. They conduct one of the most important jobs at the UN, and for monitoring nuclear tests have deployed and leveraged several global sensor networks. The seismic fingerprint of nuclear tests are distinct from earthquakes. Noble gas isotopes are clear signs of a test. Infrasound and hydroacoustic measurements are also deployed; a nuclear test should register on all the sensor networks. The details on locations and functioning of the sensor networks are clearly communicated to the public in this elegant map. The information infrastructure to receive and process this flood of data streams is formidable, with 5 dedicated satellites and extremely minimal distribution lag to all the signatory countries, and analysis and permanent archiving in the Vienna center. The requirements are stringent , the solution robust and well funded. Of interest to the wider sphere, the archives are made accessible for unrelated activities, like tsunami early warning, volcanic blast detection, and climate change monitoring, all a wise example of reuse and repurpsoing of data. It’s not completely *open* but demonstrates how data access results in unexpected uses.

Lightning talks filled the rest of the monring. I gave two, and almost three. An introduction to GeoCommons led nicely from the previous days discussion of neogeo vs sdi. I gave a brief overview of the system and philosophy, with a brief example derived from Sean’s demos for the Gates Foundation. Good to see the acknowledgment that GC is bringing the accessibility of web tools with the analysis and cartographic care of traditional GIS. I took slight advantage of my 2nd lightning talk on OSM, adequately covered the day before, to switch and give a brief demo of Crabgrass and the work I’m doing at the UNDP. UNGIWG meets infrequently in formal meetings, and there’s scope for more sustained, agile, deeper contacts. There are an estimated 500-1000 GIS professionals in the UN system, and most are unaware of the work of UNGIWG, with extremely demanding work schedules and little opportunity to draw lessons from the wider community. My feeling is that a social network infrastructure is ideal to facilitate SDI, the human context is crucial when developing machine readable interfaces, and especially if that platform is open source and being deployed already in UN agencies. We’re currently working to set up an UNGIWG crabgrass, one of the brightest outcomes of the event for me.

Open source still faces difficulties in the UN. It’s commonly acknowledged that open source solutions, especially for geodata and maps on the web, are superior than proprietary offerings, but the commonly heard refrain is that the IT management is hostile to deploying open source. The expectations and accounting for software is biased against OS solutions, a grave irony when OS supports the objectives of the UN itself. Open source can provide valuable resources to beneficiaries just as a byproduct of UN requirements, and gives a technical basis for cooperation between UN agencies .. but this doesn’t happen that often. The must change, by appeal to upper management, something I hope is addressed at web4dev in February. There are bright spots of course. CampToCamp have developed camp management web platforms for UNHCR with open source tools, which I hope will provide opportunities for cooperation with efforts like Sahana (which has gotten some support from the UNDP), Ushahidi, and other crisis mappers, and the emerging OSM Corp concept.

Outside of UNGIWG, Vienna was lovely as ever and treated us well. The overflowing Baroque of Vienna is uplifting, the old masters and vaults of science, churches bubbling with iconography, even to the modern modern museums quartier, baroque is the guiding fabric (and home to a great cafe). The urbanity of Vienna is inspiring, imperial layered landscapes, imaginative restorations of the gasometer, enduring socialist idealism of Karl Marx Hof, speeding BMWs down cobbled luxury streets, walkable, cyclable, the best transport system anywhere. If only the city stayed open later. Even the brutal, only good on paper Vienna International Centre carries 60s UN hopefulness, and a reminder to remember the human scale even when buildings do not. That all was the scene for good times and some misadventure with old compagni and new of our geo vanguard.

And with a final sweetness, just dumb luck gave me the opportunity to facilitate a rather large geodata domation to OSM, more on that as things finalize.

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UNGIWG, meat on the bones. OpenStreetMap and the UNSDI.

There is very much an emerging just $*!(% do it attitude. SDI East Africa has gone ahead within a specific geography and user base, started setting up the infrastructure of GeoNetwork and GeoServer and just put it into action; there are wins and there are glaring examples of why SDI is needed. Andrew Turner and I had the pleasure of meeting many of these folks in Nairobi, including a session with the Somalia Interagency Mapping and Coordination group (their walls were plastered with real pirate maps). Elsewhere in the UN, UNOSAT and GeoNetwork have supported GeoRSS for a while now .. using the simplest thing that works and not reinventing the wheel. There’s many encouraging signs.

The remarkable thing about the opening panel at UNGIWG 9, “SDI vs. Neogeography” was how everyone dropped the versus. Everyone in the room uses the web, uses google maps, facebook, posts cat photos. They get that web and bottom up standards work for easy interoperability, get the user focus, and some “excessive creativity” like maps of UFO sightings is a good thing. And the neogeographers also get that formal SDI and GIS have requirements of precision, complexity, and cartographic elegance that aren’t always met. So the two approaches are moving to adapt and hybridize and meet halfway. For forward thinkers in either camp, there isn’t an antagonism here, only an opportunity to improve things for everyone. Earlier this year, Chris Holmes gave a great presentation on this theme, the GeoWeb and SDI.

Nicolas Chevant and I presented the vision going forward for the UNSDI-t and how our work with OpenStreetMap supports that effort with real tangible results today. Nicolas has developed a widely accepted schema for the transport layer of the UNSDI, no small task when every agency had a different method of recording road data. The neat thing is that this top down process generated schema closely resembles the key/value tags in OpenStreetMap. Perhaps not so suprising since we’re talking about the same underlying reality, but instructive that two very different processes can get similar results .. the informal, bottom up crowd does work. And OSM can learn from the formal schema. In the UNSDI-t, the emphasis is on the practical passability of roads, rather than official classification. That’s important in many places that the UN operates, and in many active OSM communities. With OSM’s open tagging system, it’s easy to build equivalencies to other schemas and retain the original attiributes as well. So OSM has been able to bring in UN road data, and other thematic layers should pose no problem.

OSM has imported many data sets (AND, TIGER, GeoBase soon..), as well as UN data sets. Neil Penman, Brett Henderson, and Ian Checkley of IBM volunteered to start with the UNJLC data for Sudan, built shapefile imports, and tag equivalencies. Issues of data quality and provenance reared early, in an emergency, you scramble to grab any available data source you can find, copyright or not, but that won’t fly for OSM. The larger looming issue is data synchronization. OSM is a single node in a wide UNSDI, and the question is how do these multiple updating databases provide the opportunity for choice of best dataset and synchronization. It’s a huge issue generally for the GeoWeb, and OSM API v0.6 provides a little bit of the scaffolding OSM will need to accomodate multi-master sync. Overall Sudan proved the OSM and UN were entirely compatible mapping partners and set the stage for more.

After Cyclone Nargis, I met Christopher Tun at WhereCamp, and quickly got working to provide support for web mapping infrastructure in the relief effort. Unlike most every other disaster, the UN was not free to operate on the ground in Myanmar. They UNJLC did what they could with existing data and satellite imagery, and in a crucial change, the maps themselves started asking for contribution. Fortunately through Chris, we were connected to local engineers who could operate the server and survey the disaster zone. The team from IBM joined in again, and started working directly with Sahana, to deploy on a single server inside Myanmar, where it would be more accessible to locals. We set up a full OSM server and mapnik tile server running locally inside Myanmar, along with osmosis to help facilitate diffs and synchronization. Sahana integrated their excellent excellent GIS module fully with OpenStreetMap. We had great remote training sessions with the Myanmar team, in Bangkok, via the surprisingly useful webex, and there were plans for us to visit directly. However things have gone quiet since the flury of activity, and I only hope it was of some enduring use in the relief effort. In any case, there was good technical development and increased capacity on the tech support side of things.

Our last interaction was the response to Hurricane Hannah in Haiti. This time we partnered with CartONG, and specifically focused on getting a routing service set up with OpenRouteService. Chippy provided great assistance with Shapefile wrangling and presence in Geneva for follow up meetings. The OpenRouteService experimented with a simple OpenLayers interface for users to roughly mark blocked roads, and adjust the routing based on this quick feedback. The only downside was that our best data source was provided in a not entirely open form. We couldn’t import it directly in OSM, only into a special instance of ORS, and so we don’t have something of last use .. open data is always where we want to be.

All three of these emergencies provided opportunity for OSM and the UN to work closer together. My effort now is to establish links beyond the emergencies, in preperation, in the normal course of development work. The nascent idea is to set up OSM Corp, a group of volunteers working to build infrastructure, relationships, and processes for using OpenStreetMap in humanitarian work. The next time there’s an opportunity to respond, we can get rolling rapidly, and maybe even work towards deployment in the field with MapAction or CartONG. And wider, we’re open to collaborations with UNGIWG and its member agencies; this was my offer to the assembled…

Myself and others on the openstreetmap foundation board, and in the large global volunteer community, are keenly interested in the activities of UNGIWG and the development of the UNSDI. Data sharing among agencies, governments, and ngos for humanitarian purposes is totally complementary to the OSM mission, to create a free and open of the entire world. I whole heartedly offer our support and willingness to work with you all as an engaged and practical partner to build nodes in an SDI that works for the world.

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UNGIWG, helping the United Nations to share its geodata

Last week I was in Vienna for the 9th plenary meeting of UNGIWG, the “United Nations Geographic Information Working Group”. That meant muted but real celebration of Obama’s victory in UN chambers. Good stuff.

UNGIWG is a group of UN professionals working together to solve problems and cooperate on all manner of things concerning maps and geographic data, most especially for humanitarian purposes. The UN publishes a huge number of maps, just check out ReliefWeb for a start; they utilize maps internally in the Security Council and Peace Keeping operations, just for a start; and have un-enumerated databases of geodata, of which Geonetwork is the tip of the iceberg. There’s a vast untapped potential for geodata and map sharing at the United Nations, to help the agencies themselves work individually and together in a better way, and to serve UN beneficiaries .. aka The World. That data is often locked up or slightly inaccessible or in weird formats, etc. The aim is to produce a “Spatial Data Infrastructure”, perhaps defined as “the technology, policies, standards, human resources, and related activities necessary to acquire, process, distribute, use, maintain, and preserve spatial data”.

To me that sounds like the same issues facing the Web at large, and IMO the Web is doing a pretty decent job at sharing. So with my long term interest and work with software in the UN, and insights into the whole GeoWeb thing, I was invited to participate, along with fellow “geographic hooligans” Schuyler Erle, Danille Nascimento, Sandra Sudhoff and Yann Rebois from CartONG, and of course my collaborator within the UNSDI over the last year, Nicolas Chevant. I personally ended up juggling three different hats, as OpenStreetMap Foundation Board Member, representative of FortiusOne (inherited through Mapufacture’s previous engagements in UNSDI), and finally UNDP, as consultant on WaterWiki and the UNDP Crabgrass install.

The final hat gave me a seat at the big table and closed sessions, open only to members within the fascinating and overwhelming alphabet soup of the UN System. The UN is in essence a diplomatic forum, and the corresponding ethos trickles down into the everyday workings inside the UN. UN meeting rooms have comfortable chairs and an equal playing field, and the organization of UNGIWG has produced an abundance of the necessary procedural documentation to get the officials of 30+ agencies working together and willing (potentially) to fund projects and send representatives and basically make the space for things to happen. Diplomatic procedures also produce long timelines .. we heard dates such as 2020 mentioned a few times. I’m all for the long now, but we all think that something can be done in a more web scale timeframe.

The common refrain was that “the technological problems are nearly solved, it’s the social process that’s in question”. This also extends to dealing with IT. While a majority of the attendees were technologists, they aren’t the ones in charge of deploying technology, and there are formidable barriers within the UN to doing something creative, especially with open source. IT sometimes treats its job more like a utility than a creative endeavor, and that’s a very limited view. I hope to raise this at the UN Web4Dev conference in February.

So that’s the stage, some idea of the issues and perhaps why our perspectives were invited into the show. More on what went down tomorrow.

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