Continental GIS

Europe's local governments drive a major trend toward GIS -- a trend that could lead to sharing of geo info across the European Union.

by / November 10, 2004
While most Americans are familiar with Stockholm -- Sweden's largest city and seat of government, economy and culture -- Gothenburg perhaps best represents the country's dynamism, both in the private and public sector. The city -- Sweden's second largest -- is sometimes compared to San Francisco because of its west coast location, bridges, hills, large harbor, trams and seafood. For decades, Gothenburg was the heart of Sweden's shipbuilding industry. When the shipping business collapsed in the 1970s, modern industrial, engineering, and most recently, high-tech firms moved into the wharves, docks and warehouses that line Gothenburg's waterfront.

The entrepreneurial spirit that allowed the city to reinvent itself economically extends to government. Gothenburg has an international reputation for using advanced technology to deliver services, provide better public safety and enhance planning decisions.

It started several decades ago when officials installed a computer-aided design (CAD) system to assist the city's utility and street maintenance departments. When needs exceeded the CAD system's capabilities, Gothenburg turned to GIS, developing a centralized system with a spatial data warehouse based on MapInfo's SpatialWare software and an Oracle database. It's the most comprehensive spatial warehouse in Europe, according to Per-Ake Roupe, the city's IT manager.

Gothenburg is one of many European localities driving the continentwide trend toward using GIS to better government operations.

Gothenburg's applications that involve geospatial data range from mundane to mission critical, according to Roupe. "We use GIS to decide when to cut the grass and where nurses should go to reach their patients at home," he said. The city incorporated GIS into dozens of programs that drive virtually every planning and management decision the city makes.

"Gothenburg is possibly the best example of how GIS is used at the local level in Europe," said Sabby Nayar, MapInfo's strategic industry manager for government and education. He added that the city's accomplishments are tied to its relentless drive to create spatial data, which has spurred quick growth of its GIS. "They have hundreds of heavy users, thousands of moderate users, and track performance metrics, conduct crime analysis and create 3-D images of planned construction."

Their spatial data is so comprehensive that Gothenburg sells it to private-sector companies. The key to all this success, according to Roupe, was the City Council's mandate that all departments and agencies use the same software for core applications. In this case, Gothenburg chose a desktop solution from MapInfo.

City planners and engineers use the system's professional tools to develop 3-D models of buildings and conduct facility planning. For example, they use GIS to plot the number of students per classroom, classroom capacities and student population per school district. The result: much better, more accurate forecasts for constructing new classrooms, building a new school or realigning a school district. The same use of geospatial data and planning is applied to elder care housing, shopping malls, housing developments and highways.

Gothenburg residents have access to a wide range of maps over the Internet, while more moderate government users can do the same via the city's intranet. According to Roupe, Gothenburg also uses wireless technology to extend mapping data into the field, and nurses use it to locate new patients in the city's neighborhoods. Snowplows are tracked during storms, and the data is plotted on Web maps so residents can quickly find out which streets are clear and which need to be plowed. In all, the city has 10 mobile applications that use mapping data, with more to come.

Extending the Reach of GIS
Gothenburg's experience with GIS reflects a major trend taking place in Europe. "We are seeing a macro trend toward enabling geospatial data across the enterprise," said Chris Bradshaw, vice president of infrastructure solutions at Autodesk. "Within that, I see a trend toward usage of a single data warehouse that includes GIS data. Almost all government GIS organizations are willing to unify their graphical and alphanumerical data."

Enterprise databases involving GIS are not only crucial to local needs, as Gothenburg has found, they have national implications as well. The Czech Republic launched a nationwide land registry system using spatial technology to meet the agricultural policy requirements set forth by the European Union. (The EU is an international organization comprising most of Western Europe and governing common economic, social and security policies.) Without the land registry, Czech farmers would not receive EU funding. The enterprise system is run by the Ministry of Agriculture and uses software from Autodesk and Oracle.

Another example of the European trend toward enterprise GIS is Norway's announcement to create a national geo-data portal. National agencies and local authorities will contribute content to the portal, which will provide free map-based services to all Norway citizens. Partnerships with the commercial sector will ensure the portal contains significant content to feed various applications that serve national needs -- including wildlife identification, environmental protection and management of resources such as minerals -- as well as municipal needs, such as local transportation services, road maintenance and urban planning.

The project, led by the Norwegian Mapping Authorities and GIS software producer ESRI, is considered the first of its kind in the world, according to Jack Dangermond, president of ESRI. The portal and its geospatial data will operate on a platform based on international standards using a distributed architecture, including Web services.

While local governments in America have also developed innovative GIS applications, industry experts say there's no question that the situation is more advanced overseas. "There's more creativity at the local level in Europe when it comes to GIS," said Nayar. "And they have done this with modest investments."

Frank Holsmuller, regional marketing manager for ESRI, agrees with that assessment. "At the local level, there are more detailed uses of GIS, such as in health care. At the provincial level, you will find GIS used for water management, road maintenance and planning, while at the national level you will see applications for defense and environment," he said. Europe lags when it comes to incorporating GIS with crime fighting and homeland security. "But they are starting to become big time issues over here," explained Holsmuller, who is based in the Netherlands, "and have big potential as far as GIS is concerned."

Holsmuller said he believes Europe's extensive use of GIS has to do with the strong tradition of mapping there. That heritage stretches back over centuries and is reflected in the highly detailed maps still produced in Europe, as well as in the early adoption of mapping and GIS technology (Gothenburg's GIS efforts date back to the mid-1970s). Combine this map-making tradition with the fact that the public sector is larger and more centralized in Europe, encompassing utilities, transportation and telecommunications, as well as the usual government sectors, and you have a robust environment for GIS.

"The European public sector is quite large and includes a wide field of applications for GIS," said Bradshaw. "The use of GIS in Europe is more advanced than the U.S. in terms of specific applications. Given the fact that there are so many local rules and standards [in Europe], a lot of dedicated GIS applications are developed at the local level. It brings a deeper usage of GIS."

If the EU has its way, the benefits of mapping won't stop at national borders. Right now, the organization seeks to "harmonize geographical information in the EU, which will vastly help us to better plan, implement and monitor environmental measures," said Margot Wallstrom, the EU's environment commissioner. "There is a clear need for a common EU approach in this field so we can maximize the use of existing data." The project Wallstrom refers to goes by the name Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe (INSPIRE) and is the first such cross-border attempt at sharing spatial data, according to Holsmuller.

Sharing spatial data for environmental purposes is just the beginning. The EU's goal is to establish a legal framework so a spatial information infrastructure can be established and operated throughout Europe. Along with INSPIRE, the EU started work on a spatial database for all water basins in Europe and launched a project to deliver geospatial information to mobile devices throughout the continent. Called Geographic Distributed Information (ODIN), the initiative uses technology from Autodesk and Microsoft, and will deliver geo-information in real time for a variety of applications, including travel and tourism, transportation, weather reports and environmental protection.

Cost Struggles
Should the wireless GIS project take off, it will mark a significant step forward in what many consider to be one of the more important GIS developments in recent years: wireless geospatial applications. Despite the fact that Europe has had a single network for wireless communications longer than the United States, wireless applications like ODIN and those in Gothenburg are the exception, not the rule. Instead, Europe has taken a wait-and-see attitude toward wireless GIS, according to industry experts. Part of the problem is that mobile devices have storage limitations, which restrict GIS usage, known for its data-intensive applications.

Another problem is cost, an issue that affects all types of public-sector GIS applications in Europe, not just wireless projects. Creating up-to-date, accurate databases of geospatial information is expensive, explained Holsmuller, and price drops are hindered by language and other barriers in each country. "Imagine each state in the U.S. having its own language. You can begin to get the picture of what we face here when it comes to data sharing to hold down costs," he said.

The other issue, according to Holsmuller, is the lack of standards for a number of GIS-related operations. For example, individual countries have begun developing their own geographical interfaces, which balkanize application sharing, further driving up the cost.

Whether the EU can overcome this problem remains to be seen. For now, the proof of Europe's success with GIS remains firmly at the local level. Perhaps not so surprisingly, since it reflects how GIS has taken root in the public sector over here as well.
Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.