A key building block for Digital Earth is represented by those thematic information infrastructures addressing environmental and geographic information (Spatial Data Infrastructures, or SDIs). These have been developed over the past 20 years largely as a result of government efforts to have better information on which to base sound environmental policies. Europe is a world leader in developing SDIs as a result of its INSPIRE initiative, of which the JRC is the technical coordinator.
INSPIRE, the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe, is a legal framework that requires Member States to document and share harmonised spatial and environmental datasets and services, and establish a technical infrastructure to make it possible to discover, view, transform and download them. INSPIRE is not a centralised system but is based on the interoperability of the many national and sub-national SDIs developed and maintained by the Member States across Europe. To achieve such interoperability, the JRC coordinates the development of the technical specifications for harmonising these datasets under 34 environmental themes, and to ensure that the Member States’ web services can communicate effectively. The reason INSPIRE is such a world leader is that most other SDIs in the world focus only on discovering and accessing existing information and not on harmonising the underlying data so that they can be used seamlessly across national borders.
The experience of the JRC in developing a multilingual and interoperable SDI across Europe is also of major benefit to the global endeavours to share Earth observations more effectively. Eighty-eight countries, the European Commission, and sixty-nine international organisations are contributing to this effort to develop a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). At the heart of GEOSS is a common infrastructure to search and access information, data, and services from major Earth observing systems. The JRC co-chairs the Implementation Board overseeing the development of this infrastructure, and contributes to its operations through a key component, the Data and Access Broker, that has been a leap forward in the ability to search and access data from heterogeneous global systems. The key feature of the brokering approach is that it does not seek to achieve interoperability by imposing a single set of standards on different systems, but recognises that diversity will always exist, and therefore it is necessary to build bridges across different communities, and their technical standards, protocols, and ways of operating. This is particularly important in the context of GEOSS; unlike INSPIRE, which is backed by a legal enforceable framework, GEOSS is a voluntary process, with limited financial resources. Therefore, trying to impose a single set of standards proved to be unworkable, and the brokering approach developed in the EuroGEOSS research project led by the JRC proved instead to be a key innovation. The possibility of building bridges to heterogeneous information systems and infrastructures is now also proving crucial in trying to integrate social networks into the Digital Earth framework.
The INSPIRE Directive: a brief description (JRC Audiovisuals)