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.