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Ready or Not: The Move Toward Personal Spatial Data Infrastructures

 Sept. 15, 2015

 David J. Coleman, Ph.D.

Editor’s note: The analysis and opinions represented in this article are strictly the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the intelligence community or the Department of Defense.

The term “spatial data infrastructure” has come to mean that critical mass of processes, policies, standards, enabling technologies, mechanisms and key datasets required in a jurisdiction to make geospatial data readily available to a growing community of end users. Especially over the past two decades, government organizations have invested billions of dollars in SDI implementation through development and updating of digital framework datasets, metadata creation efforts, and development of Web-based geoportals for access and downloading of geospatial datasets.

Today, we take for granted the legacy of these SDI programs. Location-based services on smartphones, smart cars and wearable computers all make use of the positioning and mapping infrastructure originally put in place to support public-sector national SDI programs in the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and elsewhere around the world. Many of us now depend on location-aware mobile applications to help us find particular locations, and even each other. Updates to existing map features (particularly roads and trails) are provided voluntarily through user contributions or sometimes unconsciously by users of these apps as the locations of their cellphones and other navigation devices are tracked in real time.

We are now seeing significant private investments in proprietary positioning and mapping infrastructures, including mobile apps, to support indoor — think shopping malls, sport stadiums, museums — location-based services for navigation, customer tracking and business intelligence, distribution logistics, and emergency response.

These apps will enable consumers to search and find products, services or points of interest within a given facility. Once there, customers or visitors can access further information about a product or service and, in some cases, information on similar or competing nearby products and services. Integrated with information from other sensors and point-of-sale terminals, such information offers valuable business intelligence to businesses and organizations.

As long-time smartphone and tablet users, and now users of smart cars and watches, we have come to expect seamless interaction between key applications on our various devices. Just like our email interacts with our contacts database when we send messages, “geofencing” services trigger certain actions whenever someone leaves or enters a given geographical area. Going forward, the challenge is to determine which particular combinations of integrated apps or channels of mobile information services consumers will use to create their own personal SDI, or pSDI.

In pSDIs, standardized services, agreements and device interoperability will enable users to:

(1) learn and predict patterns of usage, consumption and travel (major/minor, outside/inside) over time;

(2) select and integrate data from a wide range of different public, private, social and personal data channels; and

(3) employ the results to seamlessly and transparently meet the unique needs of a person in different personal, business and social contexts.

But aren’t all the services we require for a pSDI either already available or in testing today as part of individual apps or services?

Well, yes they are — a least to some extent. That said, many such indoor navigation and tracking services are still standalone and rely on different standards for positioning and communications. They do not operate well or exchange data easily with services offered by other vendors, and may not offer seamless and consistent positioning service and accuracy.

Further, as attractive or useful as these services sound, they can come at the price of your privacy. In today’s online marketplace, if you are not paying for a product, then chances are you may be the product. Collection of information concerning online browsing and purchase decisions is now commonplace, as is tracking the location of individual cellphones and other devices. By collecting and integrating information from the various apps and services you use daily on different devices, a virtual profile representing your daily movements, consumer preferences, personal opinions, relationships and travel plans may be created — with or without your knowledge.

Privacy regulations vary from country to country, and no single organization has easy and integrated access to all the online social networking, financial transactions, Web browsing and personal navigation activities that transact on a daily basis.

That said, we can expect that:

(1) several organizations will have access to different subsets of that information; and

(2) higher and broader levels of integration will continue to take place in the near future.

Further, experience shows that such services, whether inside or outside government, are susceptible to cybersecurity breaches. For further consideration, I recommend reading, “Technocreep,” a recent book by Thomas Keenan, which offers examples and assessments of the privacy risks involved in today’s online society.

Regardless of your position or concerns on these matters, personal spatial data infrastructures are quickly becoming a reality. How consumers balance tradeoffs between convenience and personal privacy with respect to services built atop these infrastructures — and how consumers, legislators and legal systems around the world react — remains to be seen.

David Coleman is president of the Global Spatial data Infrastructure Association ( and a professor in the department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering at the university of New Brunswick in Canada ( His almost-40 year career in industry and academia includes work as a project engineer, company executive, consultant, educator and researcher. contact him at