Towards a European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII)

(31 December 1995)

Table of Contents

Executive Summary
1. The context of the European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII)
2. Geographic Information
3. Why GI is important
4. Collectors and disseminators of GI
5. The forces driving GI at the end of the 20th century
6. The strengths and weaknesses of the European GI community
7. The EGII: a strategy to remove bottlenecks and grasp opportunities
8. Political issues and practical results to be achieved
9. The legal issues and potential risks
10. The organisations that need to be involved
11. Conclusions and recommendations

Table 1. Major trans-border regions in Europe
Table 2. New GI products and services
Table 3. European Union Documents governing legal policy
Table 4. Members of EUROGI (16 August 1995)


Executive Summary

The development of the information society is a critical element of former Commission President Delor's 1993 vision for Europe. The matter was addressed in 1994 by senior representatives of industry and government under chairmanship of Commissioner Bangemann and received further support. The need for global co-operation have been stressed.

Geographic information (GI) is a complex, rapidly growing and important part of the information society with many applications in international and national government, business and research. GI is important because of the content and value of electronic spatial information for planning, land management, marketing studies, environment, renewable energy resources, emergency services, health care, political analysis and many other uses. Though new GI technologies and applications are developing rapidly, future growth in Europe is hampered by major differences in the way GI is collected, stored and distributed in the different countries and in different sectors of government and commerce. Because non-digital GI has been a specialised activity organised by individual nation states and professions in different ways, there is no European policy on digital GI, nor are there operational European standards for data definition and exchange, nor readily available basic data sets and supporting technology and knowledge infrastructure.

This paper explains the importance of GI for Europe, who uses it, who collects it and disseminates it. Current growth in GI industries is estimated at 18-30 percent per annum. Growth of GI in Europe is driven by trans-national and pan-European applications and by advances in computer technology. Growth of GI applications for pan-European applications and trans-border projects is severely limited by availability of European-wide quality data at affordable prices, different national approaches and standards and political and legal issues. Because of lack of standards, the costs of data conversion may be more than double the costs of data purchase, imposing a large burden on users.

The key issue is to provide a broad, readily available, high quality platform of base data within a uniform infrastructure across Europe so that every market niche is open to every entrepreneur, so that existing data can be combined to provide valuable information and so that new data can be added effectively and immediately.

Compared with other world regions, European strengths in GI include very good national base data and geo-referenced thematic data, high resolution satellites, highly skilled work force, well-organised industry and demonstrated intentions at EU level to improve co-ordination and remove barriers to further progress. Weaknesses include the lack of European-wide data, the inability of national GI agencies to operate outside their own countries, dependence on non-European software, and lack of implemented agreements on standards, legal and liability issues and copyright problems.

The major impediments to the widespread and successful use of GI in Europe are not technical, but political and organisational. The lack of a European mandate on GI is retarding development of joint GI strategies and causes unnecessary costs; it is stifling new goods and services and reducing competitiveness. The situation can be improved through a European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII) that is set up at European government level and operated by and for the GI community.

The EGII would be a stable, European-wide set of agreed rules, standards and procedures for creating, collecting, exchanging and using GI. The EGII would also ensure that European-wide base datasets are readily available and that metadata services exist so that such data can be easily located by potential users.

The advantages of the EGII include efficiencies of scale in a unified market, reduced problems for trans-border and pan-European projects, a common European-wide spatial database for all, efficient technical solutions for future growth, increasing use of European skills, improved market position in GI and better results of European-wide planning and decision making.

Failure to implement EGII implies a continuation of a fragmented market, higher than necessary costs for trans-border and pan-European applications, with less than optimal results of analyses and decision making; lack of a European view of spatial problems; reduced world competitiveness, resulting in fewer jobs and smaller market shares; increased dependence on technology from outside Europe and a continuation of the current tendency to adopt ad hoc solutions. It is important that the vision for the EGII presented in this document be pursued vigorously at political level throughout Europe and that all elements of the evolving EGII concept be incorporated into practical work programmes under visionary leadership.

To achieve these aims, and to help define, fund and implement the EGII, it will be necessary to encourage:

  • Effective communications (in the widest sense) between all actors involved in the EGII, including electronic forums and agreement of common terminology.
  • Incentives for wide participation of actors, both public and private, which will be proposed to the Council of Ministers as concrete, funded actions.

The main political actions needed are:

  • Agreement of Member States to set up a common approach to create European base data, and to make this generally available at affordable rates.
  • A joint decision to set up and adopt general data exchange standards and to use them.
  • A joint decision to improve the ways and means for both public and private agencies and similar organisations to conduct European- level actions, such as creation of pan-European base data.
  • Agreement to initiate European-wide legal studies to address issues such as copyright, liability, misuse of information specifically with respect to GI.

The political issues can be addressed through an EGII Steering Committee to be chaired by a high-ranking individual from within one of the major EU institutions. The Committee would include representatives from the Member States, from other EU institutions with direct concern for pan-European issues, and major actors from the wider European GI community, across industry sectors.

This Committee would empower an EGII Working Group, made up of representatives from governmental agencies and commercial data providers and users, to create a broad-based European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII) within a target period of 5 years.

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1.The context of the European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII)

In December 1993, the then Commission President Delors(1) presented the European Council in Brussels with a major vision for Europe. A critical element was the development of the information society, especially within the triad of the European Union, the United States and Japan. High-level, senior representatives from the industries which would implement the information society met early in 1994 under Commissioner Martin Bangemann and made recommendations(2) which were presented to the European Council at the Corfu summit in June 1994. These were later given more substance in the Commission's action plan "Europe's Way to the Information Society" (COM(94) 347 of 19.7.94). The European Council in Essen in December 1994 further underlined the importance of the emerging information society on the role of new information services, and especially the content, or the information itself. The G7 Ministerial Conference in Brussels on 25-26 February 1995(3) confirmed the opportunities the information society will offer and stressed the need for global co-operation.

Geographic information (GI) is a complex, rapidly growing and important part of the information society that is finding many applications in supranational and national government, business and research. Its importance lies not so much in the use of information technology (IT) hardware and software as in the content and value of that information to a wide range of users. Though new GI technologies and applications are developing rapidly, future growth in Europe is hampered by major differences in the way GI is collected, stored and distributed in the different countries and in different sectors of government and commerce. The European market for GI has developed slowly and with great difficulty. GI traditionally has been a specialised activity organised by individual nation states and professions in different ways. European standards for data definition and exchange are only now emerging. Basic European GI data sets and supporting technology and knowledge infrastructure have not been readily available. This fragmented development history of GI in Europe has resulted in quite disparate market development for GI across the EU Member States. Thus, an EU GI policy is needed to overcome these barriers.

Recognising that GI is an important part of the information society, French, German, Spanish and Dutch ministers(5) have emphasised the need for a joint approach to the design, development and maintenance of a European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII). They have urged the European Commission to initiate actions leading to a co-ordinated approach to GI in Europe; to further the creation of seamless, homogeneous, digital data bases of GI for Europe; to increase support to organisations such as EUROGI(6) and initiatives such as MEGRIN(7); and to define and help create a worthwhile European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII).

This document explains what GI is and why it is important for Europe to have a European Geographic Information Infrastructure encompassing data policies, readily available base data, communication of GI and GI knowledge-infrastructure. It describes who collects, disseminates, uses and profits from GI in Europe. It explains the driving forces behind the growth of the world GI industry and explores important new application areas and opportunities. Europe's strengths and weaknesses with respect to GI are examined, as are the legal issues and bottlenecks. A strategy to remove bottlenecks and create new market opportunities is presented, as are the objectives for the EGII. Political and legal issues involved in setting up the EGII are explored, participants are proposed who should be involved in the EGII and recommendations are made for further action.

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2. Geographic Information

Geographic information (GI) is "information which can be related to a location (defined in terms of a point, area or volume) on the Earth, particularly information on natural phenomena, cultural and human resources."(8) The positional data can be a specific set of spatial co-ordinates, or can cover less precise locations or areas, such as addresses, postal codes or administrative boundaries, regions or even whole countries. Most GI also includes a time dimension, since the world is not a static place.

GI can be divided into two major classes: base data (sometimes called core data or framework data), which are necessary for most applications, and application-specific data, sometimes referred to simply as thematic data.

Base data may include:

  • the basic geodetic frameworks for determining geographic location,
  • elevation data,
  • thematic data on the location of natural objects, such as rivers, coasts and lakes, and anthropogenic features such as roads, railways, towns and cities, and
  • administrative boundaries at national, regional and local levels (e.g. NUTS boundaries and post-code districts), and
  • linkage data, permitting non-spatial data to be more easily analysed spatially (e.g. relating addresses to coordinate systems).

Application specific data covers all other kinds of GI that may be used in one application but not in all. Examples include socio-economic data from planning studies and censuses and natural resource data such as soil information or groundwater quality, or special purpose versions of the base data (e.g. the use of road centre lines for auto navigation). Application specific data are largely thematic and may range from measures of reflected radiation captured by remote sensing sensors to data on utility networks to information about land ownership, land use and natural resources, or demography and health.

Base data have long been collected and distributed in analogue form by national organisations. Today, these data are widely available at national level in digital form. By means of computerised Geographical Information Systems (GIS) they can be exchanged, used, modified and combined with other spatial and non-spatial data in an unlimited number of ways. However, such exchange, conversion and integration is not always a straightforward activity. Identifying ways and means to better re-use existing GI data is also important and will lead to increased market size by permitting new information products and services to be created at lower cost.

"... business must make the transition from data processing (automating functions) to information applications (to informate (sic) the organisation). GIS is envisioned as an integral and strategic component of IT initiatives."(9)

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3. Why GI is important

The ability to relate information on activities and resources to a spatial location and to monitor or predict changes over time is fundamental to modern society. In this respect, the importance of socio-economic data, such as that produced by national censuses, cannot be overstressed. International, national, regional and local governments use GI for a host of applications from defence and policing activities through regional planning, strategic studies for renewable energy resources, environmental management and risk avoidance through urban and rural policy decisions to day-to-day operational activities such as land registration, property taxation or routing of traffic. Many Directorates General and offices of the European Community (e.g. EUROSTAT, the Ispra Institutes, the European Environmental Agency, etc.) are major users of GI. Many activities involving spatial information started before the digital age and are enshrined in national or international law. Legally based land registration may be more important in securing a prosperous and stable society than an open market economy.(10)

Industry and commerce use GI in many ways. Utility companies (power, gas, water, telephone) are major investors in digital GI technology for managing and monitoring their supply networks, often on an international basis. Businesses use GI together with other economic information to determine optimal delivery routes, the location of potential markets or the site of outlets or factories. Constructors of major infrastructure (roads, railways, bridges) use GI to estimate the amounts and costs of material needed. In sectors such as agriculture, forestry, water resources or mining, GI is used to assess yields and management strategies. In service industries, GI is used by consultants to advise on how to improve business efficiency, or to provide services for tourism and transport. In social investigations, GI is used to help analyse spatially varying attributes of the population such as income, crime, health or the quality of housing. GI is used in a wide range of practical environmental issues from global warming and sea level rise to erosion, flooding and soil, air and water pollution.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) not only permit all information on conventional paper maps to be handled in digital form but, in principle, enable it to be linked to all other kinds of spatial data. In an ideal world, users can extract and analyse information from the spatial database to support political, economic and scientific decision making, such as may be involved in managing growth in less favoured areas, in understanding the impact of set-aside on agricultural production and rural ecology or the interaction between industrial activities and environment. Consequently, the range of persons and institutions involved in collecting GI has exploded and there is a growing market for digital topographic map data, satellite imagery, data from censuses and market research studies, postcodes, health data, data on environment and natural resources, transport networks and flows of goods, cadastre and land registration, utility networks, etc. and the means to analyse these datasets.

Increasingly, GI-based applications in Europe, in national and local government, in industry and commerce and in research, are providing essential information for management and decision making. However, many projects encounter unnecessary difficulties because of problems of data availability, exchangeability, and compatibility. Building a comprehensive database is expensive and time and incompatibility in data may discourage important developments. Recent estimates based on a market survey of 1000 GI users(11) suggest that on average, the costs of data conversion are at least double the costs of externally acquired data! This wasteful overhead is especially acute in Europe because Europe does not yet have a unified policy on GI, though certain organisations such as CERCO and EUROGI have been working to these ends. The primary goal of a European GI policy should be to eliminate these barriers.

Up until today, different problems (i.e. data resolution, format, etc.) and a diversity in the two areas have made it difficult to reconcile GIS and remote sensing(12).

The CORINE data set will not be completed for the Baltic Region within the time period of interest(13). Back to top


4. Collectors and disseminators of GI

In Europe, base data are collected and disseminated by a range of mandated national institutes such as National Mapping Agencies (NMAs), Military Organisations, Cadastral and Geodetic Surveys according to a wide variety of national standards, and there are private companies that publish a wide range of cartographic products. Conventionally, these organisations produce paper maps at a wide range of scales, which in some countries are freely available, while in others they may still be regarded as military secrets. Increasingly, both national and private organisations are providing geographic data in digital form to meet a wide range of applications.

In addition, many kinds of thematic data are collected by international, national and private agencies: Geological Surveys, Soil Surveys, demographic studies, censuses, motoring and transport associations, etc. Until recently, most of the spatial data were disseminated as paper maps. Owners of airborne or space remote sensing platforms (e.g. photogrammetric agencies, SPOT Image, EARSEL, EURIMAGE) have provided data in both photographic and digital form. Companies such as Eurosense, Tele Atlas, AA Publications, Michelin Guides, Bartholomew, and GeoInformation collect and disseminate digital GI, often in the form of added value information products not provided by NMAs.

Though the global market for GI is currently much smaller than the total Information Technology (IT) market (World wide 1993 total IT was 375 billion ECU, with GI hardware and software only 8 billion ECU(14)), the GI market is said to be growing at 18-30 per cent annually. In 1994, the market for European information content related industries was 150 billion ECU, employing 2 million people, with considerable growth potential in terms of employment. In the European Union, about 0.1% of GNP per annum, corresponding to some 6 billion ECU, is already spent on topographical data alone, a sizeable market share by any standards.

The collection and dissemination of most European GI is currently controlled by governments through licensing and copyrights, the details of which vary widely between the different European partners. Many private companies also collect certain base data, as well as much thematic data, especially relating to tourism and transport, and in remote sensing. The market is currently most developed in the northern countries but involvement, awareness and use of GI in the southern EU Member States is increasing rapidly, as evidenced by the May 1995 launch of Portugal's SNIG (Sistema Nacional de Informaçáo Geográfica) network. Commercial road network databases for autonavigation and truck routing, such as those produced by Tele Atlas and EGT, currently cover the whole Europe.

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5. The forces driving GI at the end of the 20th century

Two major forces are driving the development of GI at a supranational level. The first is the need for governments and businesses to carry out proper spatial analyses, many of which cross national boundaries. The second is the pervasiveness of cheap, powerful information and communications technology.

Trans-national and pan-European activities.

Important areas where GI technology is providing new opportunities include critical trans-national areas (see Figure 1) and pan-European activities which require very different kinds of information to be brought together. Critical trans-national areas are those areas or regions which are shared or affected by several countries, yet must be managed as a whole. Clearly, for these situations it is essential to have shared spatial databases of known quality. One of the most important is the catchment area of the Baltic Sea which is affected by activities in 14 countries(15). Table 1 lists other examples of critical trans-national areas in Europe.

Pan-European activities include those most important for the European community and internationally oriented business, commerce, research and education. They include the setting up and use of spatial databases and GI products for major utility networks (oil, gas, water, electricity, telecommunications), defence, transport, marketing, environment and resources (geology, water, soil, renewable energy resources), health care and emergencies, product development and training.

Figure 1. Important trans-border areas.

The effect of IT on GI: "information plug and play".

Cheap, readily available computer power, with networking, powerful software and digital databases has democratised map making. There has been a major change from conventional map making in which the paper map is the end product of a long, complex and conscious process of data collection and representation to modern computer "maps", which are transient phenomena, made to order. Using on-line, digital databases, it has become possible to retrieve and analyse spatial data on any theme for any area at any desired level of resolution at the touch of a button. (Assuming, of course, one has the digital data!) Consequently, the variety of new GI applications is growing daily (Table 2). In contrast to conventional map making, many new applications deal with situations that vary both in time and space, making rapid updating and modification of databases and fast computing essential.

The concept of "plug and play" has been proposed as a mechanism for simplifying the use of GI and for reducing the huge costs of data conversion. The idea is to have a basic GI infrastructure through which base data are readily available in a standard format at a reasonable cost. Users then ensure that the data and specialised processing tools for a given application are compatible with the intrinsic data structures, location and level of resolution. Thus they can add value via their own data and through analysing/modelling data from others. Each new GI application could be a plug-in module to a pan-European spatial system, thereby reducing development costs and encouraging the degree of use over the whole community. The critical elements in this idea are no longer computer hardware and software but the availability, price, quality and technical structure of the data, and legal aspects.

In the analogue technology, cartographers produced products for users. Electronic technology empowers all persons to become cartographers and create their own products which they will use to the extent of their abilities.

Increasing use of GI can lead to many new products and services which could have a major impact on the quality of life and competitiveness of European industry. The provision of GI and affordable systems for analysing spatial data will contribute to better political and business decisions, to increased competitiveness, to reduced pollution and waste and to improved efficiency. The development of this market will lead to a demand for new, high value skills and information products of world class. Also, by addressing the problems of the international regions and pan-European projects on a common basis, it will be easier to foster the idea of the development of a corporate Europe.

The key issue is to provide a broad, readily available, high quality platform of base data within a uniform infrastructure across Europe so that every market niche is open to every entrepreneur, so that existing data can be combined to provide valuable information and so that new data can be added effectively and immediately.

The problem is somewhat similar to ensuring that the railways in Europe all have the same gauge rails and electricity supply (which they do not), or that the power supply has been standardised or that the same range of fuels is available for road transport. There may be short term reasons for preserving radically different systems but in the long term, standardisation and ease of exchange will bring lasting benefits.

Business is awakening to the fact that the spatial dimension is a necessary consideration in many of its late 20th Century opportunities(16).

..this implementation of desktop mapping has opened Ford's (Germany) eyes to the potential of geographic information(17).

"GIS technology will soon establish itself as an indispensable tool for European business strategists."(18)

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6.The strengths and weaknesses of the European GI community

The situation in Europe today.

The unity in the GI market in Europe, needed to provide an open GI society with a uniform infrastructure, has not yet been reached. The problems are political and institutional rather than technical. European strengths in relation to the information market include a wide cultural diversity and much experience in establishing the structures needed to overcome the difficulties inherent in using multiple languages and differing technical, legal, social and political systems. Historical problems in the European IT industry include fragmented markets, often governed by differing regulatory systems, and insufficient market size at national level to achieve substantial economies of scale in production.

European strengths in GI include:

  • very good national topographic data, with a long tradition of informal co-operation between national mapping agencies (as in CERCO), making Europe one of the best mapped regions of the world (at national level),
  • very good national thematic geo-referenced datasets, e.g. in the fields of environment, property rights (land registries), traffic logistics, demography, employment, soils, hydrology and geology,
  • very high resolution satellites (SPOT and ERS) and expertise in remote sensing,
  • well organised industry and professional associations with a highly skilled work force,
  • demonstrated intentions at EC level to improve co-ordination and to make base data easily available,
  • initiatives for improving and setting up standards for GI data description and exchange, such as the CEN TC 287 (19) and ISO TC 211(20) committees.

'In two years time (1996) the [soils] data set should cover the whole area... the data set will be in the public domain (DG XI).'(21)

European weaknesses in GI include:

  • There is a lack of coherent digital data at European government level. Most national agencies (whether mapping agencies, statistical institutes or environmental agencies) have no mandate to provide for the cost of collecting and maintaining EU-wide data sets. Few countries have a single mandated point of contact or central authority with overall responsibility for GI, even at national level and, if they do, the strengths of the mandates are unequal. It is likely that in the future, ventures at regional level will need to set up trans-border regional systems to handle GI.
  • There are few European-wide, or even regional, applications and data sets, except those that have been specifically built for commercial road navigation projects. International governmental data sets are usually small scale and have arisen primarily from requirements for the European Union to look at wider pan-European policy issues (e.g. the CORINE European Land Cover data). The commerical road navigation data include road centre lines for the whole of Europe at 1:10 000 and a growing list of related attributes, but these lack many details and attributes considered essential by users of GI in sectors outside road navigation and marketing. Integration of these different data has yet to be achieved.
  • Although there are good specialist GI software companies in Europe, most GI technology for general use is still imported from the USA. While such imported technology has generated support services and employment and created awareness of GI developments elsewhere, many European suppliers feel disadvantaged and threatened.

'There exists no single land cover data set covering the whole area at satisfactory resolution.'(21)

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7. The EGII: a strategy to remove bottlenecks and grasp opportunities

There is a discernible trend towards ad hoc harmonisation of GI in Europe, via the work of CERCO, EUROGI and CEN, as well as from joint projects in industry and business and the activities of pan- European GI vendor and user associations. However, progress towards an open GI society in Europe is being hampered by political and institutional considerations that need to be addressed at the highest levels if the opportunities provided by GI technology are to be fully grasped. To remove bottlenecks, reduce unnecessary costs and provide new market opportunities, the European Commission supports the creation of a European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII).

The EGII would be a stable, European-wide set of agreed rules, standards and procedures for creating, collecting, exchanging and using GI. The EGII would also ensure that European-wide base datasets are readily available and that metadata services exist so that such data can be easily located by potential users.

The EGII would address the technical, organisational and political issues of unifying GI in Europe. EGII encompasses all policies, regulations, incentives, actions and structures set up by the EU Institutions, by European businesses and by the Member States in this pursuit. The EGII is not just about maps or the technical infrastructure of information technology, but more importantly about European geographic information - its collection, storage, maintenance, dissemination, integration, harmonisation, use and possible misuse, by and for the largest possible market in Europe, both private and public sector.

  • The mandate for the EGII needs to be given at EC level because national GI institutes and other GI collectors do not have supranational mandates.
  • The EGII should be organised by a body that is completely in touch with the EC, with GI institutes and policies in the Member States, with private industry and with the market place.
  • The EGII would be implemented by European, national and industrial GI producers and users.
  • The EGII should take account of similar initiatives in other parts of the world and initiatives of GI data harmonisation at world scale.

Elements of EGII which already exist.

The concepts behind the EGII have existing precursors. Initiatives have been taken in other countries (some European, some in North America) to set up national Geographic Information Infrastructures(22). The most obvious physical manifestation of an embryo EGII is the current and ever-growing collection of sets of digital geographic information (not just maps!) held by local, regional, national and pan-European data providers and users. Such databases need not be physically interlinked, as long as potential users of GI know what databases exist, where they are located, who "owns" them, and how they can be accessed and purchased. These questions are answered by establishing metadata(23) information services across Europe. The development of an agreed format for that metadata and adoption of this format by European GI vendors and users is an important prerequisite for progress.

Other less visible, less tangible, but equally important aspects of the embryonic EGII include the creation of European associations such as EUROGI(24) and actions to increase the strengths mentioned in Section 6; more R&D work to maintain Europe's position in GI innovations(25); actions to increase awareness of GI and its myriad uses; GI skills development and training; and not least, the growing awareness of the need for a support framework and policies at Member State level to help ensure the widest possible market for GI, in the private and public sectors.

The main practical objectives for the EGII are:

  1. To provide a permanent and formal, but open and flexible, framework for organising the provision, distribution and standardisation of GI for the benefit of all suppliers and users, both public and private.
  2. To achieve a European-wide metadata system for information exchange that conforms to accepted worldwide practices.
  3. As far as possible, to harmonize the objectives of national geographic information infrastructure programmes and to learn from experience at national level to ensure that EU-wide EGII objectives can be met as well, at little additional cost and without further delay or waste of prior work already completed.
  4. To lay the foundations for rapid growth in the marketplace by supporting the policies, initiatives and structures needed to guarantee ready access to the wealth of GI that already exists in Europe, and to ensure that major tasks in data capture are cost effective, resulting in products and services usable at national and pan-European scales.
  5. To develop policies which aid European businesses in effective and efficient development of their home markets in a wide range of sectors by encouraging informed and innovative use of GI in all its many forms, including new tools and applications which can be used by non-experts.
  6. To facilitate the development of European policies in a wide range of fields by encouraging the development of new and sophisticated analysis, visualisation and presentation tools (including the relevant datasets) and the ability to monitor the efficacy of such policies.

In addition, other less tangible, long term objectives are:

  1. To improve the basis for decision making at European institutional and national levels.
  2. To help private and public organisations make better informed decisions and choose more effective policies to meet the challenges of the information society and the globalisation of the economy through access to relevant GI datasets and tools. This will lead to private organisations becoming more competitive, more profitable, producing higher quality products and giving better service. Similarly, public sector organisations could provide better services to the citizen in a wide range of functions, from better traffic control and more effective emergency services to health and environmental monitoring or urban and rural planning.
  3. To improve understanding and the quality of management of the total European living space, including environmental, socio-economic, legal, health, employment and other aspects of life.

"The availability of uniform European Geographical information of certified high quality will strongly encourage the expansion of GIS applications - uniformity guarantees the commercialisation of the application on a pan-European scale without alterations."(26)

Meeting these objectives.

Once the necessary political actions have been taken, objectives 1 , 2 and 3 can be achieved by concerted actions among the main institutional and commercial players, possibly through a joint venture supported by the European Community and assisted by EUROGI and similar organisations. Objectives 4 and 5 could be approached via appropriate EC policy instruments (e.g. by Guidelines, Recommendations or even a Directive). Objective 6 could be approached through pilot and demonstration systems, with full support to research and development.

Meeting these objectives will contribute to sustained economic development, maintaining the technological base and improving employment in high value intellectual jobs. The objectives apply to European institutions in their pursuit of European integration and the implementation of European policy; to national, regional and local authorities in the execution of their mandated tasks; and to companies, ranging from the giant multinational to the local SME, in creating and using the resulting added value products and services.

The expected benefits of the EGII are:

  • Efficiencies of scale in a unified market
  • Reduced problems for trans-border and pan-European projects
  • A common European-wide spatial database for all
  • Ability to design technical solutions for future growth
  • Increasing use of European skills and improved market position in GI
  • Improved capability for European-wide planning and decision making.

The consequences of Europe not acting coherently on GI are:

  • Continuation of a fragmented GI information market
  • Unnecessarily high costs for trans-border and pan-European applications with suboptimal results of analyses and decision making
  • Lack of a clear European view of spatial problems
  • Reduced competitiveness at world scale leading to fewer jobs and smaller market shares
  • Increased dependence on technology from outside Europe
  • Continuation of the current tendency to adopt ad hoc solutions.

The costs of the EGII.

The EGII should quickly pay back dividends across a wide range of European activities, from the purely commercial to those which enhance the quality of life generally. Funds will be necessary to carry out the organisational and technical activities that will create the various components of the EGII. Both public and private organisations will be required to invest in the EGII.

Some of the most important actions to create the EGII, such as establishing pan-European GI metadata services and even the collection of the first truly pan-European set of (non-military) base data, have modest cost by EU-wide programme standards, i.e. in the tens of millions of ECU rather than hundreds of millions. Other actions, such as raising awareness of GI and its many uses, or increasing use of GI in secondary and tertiary education, can likewise be implemented with modest financial support, much of which is already available at European level through many national and EU-wide support programmes. What is needed is better coordination across Member States and EU programmes, with a special focus on GI.

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8. Political issues and practical results to be achieved

Though Europe has distinct advantages in GI compared with other parts of the world through a solid foundation of national topographical and thematic datasets and high resolution photography and satellite imagery, policies on public data access vary across the EU. Europe has the means but needs to demonstrate the political will to create an information infrastructure that will benefit the market place and EU citizens. The infrastructure must include the legal and policy aspects of GI to ensure the creation and use of EU-wide GI datasets and standards, and to stimulate and challenge private companies and public bodies to invest in the improvement of the EGII.

The main political decisions needed are:

  • Agreement of Member States to set up a common approach to create European base data and to make this generally available at affordable rates.
  • A joint decision to set up and adopt general data exchange standards and to use them.
  • A joint decision to improve the ways and means for both public and private agencies and similar organisations to conduct European-level actions, such as creation of pan-European base data.
  • Agreement to initiate European-wide legal studies to address issues such as copyright, liability, misuse of information specifically with respect to GI.

Once political issues are settled, it will be necessary to:

  • Create conditions for the emergence of a plentiful, rich and differentiated supply of European GI, that is easily identifiable, easily accessible and competitively priced.
  • Improve the possibilities for locating existing information via metadata services and for sharing such data across different applications.
  • Ensure that the market for GI develops in a healthy and transparent way, e.g. by stimulating the expansion and use of digital GI.
  • Encourage the creation of public/private partnerships so that the wealth of public sector GI can be better exploited by the private sector for use in new and useful business and public sector applications.
  • Support stronger co-operation between Member State agencies (NMAs, National Statistical Institutes, census bureaux, environmental agencies, river and coastal authorities, etc.) and private industry for creating geographic base data which are seamless across Europe.
  • Research, review and examine the effects on the development of the GI market of pricing criteria adopted by national agencies and private data suppliers.
  • Ensure that legal and regulatory initiatives at European level dealing with information law, such as copyright, privacy and liability of information providers, take into account the special characteristics of GI.
  • Increase the awareness of information providers and potential users of GI of the benefits of understanding the spatial aspects of their data, and the need to have certain skills.
  • Assure that the European solutions are globally compatible.
  • Explore the possibilities of promoting European GI research and development in areas relating to, for example, integration and visualisation tools, and advanced spatial and temporal analysis techniques.

Each of Germany's 16 Länder is compiling a digital database conforming to DLM25/1.(27)

The Petroleum Industry has created POSC to solve its data exchange problems.(28)

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9. The legal issues and potential risks

All GI is affected by problems of copyright, data protection, privacy, liability for misuse and non-benign use of information, which bring potential risks to society from its use (Table 3). There is now wide collection of geocoded information on individuals and households by public agencies and the private sector, such as retail chain stores, travel agencies, credit card companies and telecommunication carriers. Government agencies collect information for purposes such as taxation, road pricing or crime prevention. This creates new potential for invasion of privacy and surveillance, including complete coverage of personal spatial mobility behaviour, unless strict European-wide privacy protection laws are enacted.

The pervasive collection and distribution of GI creates new problems of copyright and liability. As the original collection of GI is costly, lack of effective European-wide copyright regulations will encourage illegal copying and reselling. For the same reason, geographic data of poor or uncertain quality will appear on the market and yet, without European-wide agreements, it will be difficult to claim damages caused by decisions based on such data. Liability becomes even more crucial where personal information is concerned. While the improper disclosure of personal information may be harmful to the affected individual, the damage will be multiplied if the information disclosed is also incorrect.

Because of the growing importance of GI in all fields of economic and private life, ownership of GI implies economic power. This raises questions about how that power will be distributed. Market-driven development of the GI industry is likely to lead to dominant alliances between data producers such as retail chains, mail order and credit card companies and service providers such as telecommunication carriers or digital map publishers. In some countries Government agencies charge market prices for GI following cost-recovery strategies which may cause GI to be restricted to the economically powerful at the expense of users unable to pay the market price, such as universities or citizens actions groups. Monopolistic positions should be accountable to governments and the market place.

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10. The organisations that need to be involved

To improve the situation with respect to GI in Europe requires the involvement of many individuals and institutions. The EU Member States and their institutions already have a long history in GI in the fields of geodesy and geophysics, topographical mapping, hydrographic charting, cadastral systems, property and utility systems, statistics, natural resources and environment, and education and research relating to these subjects, and in many countries there have already been national efforts to increase co-ordination. Many European companies also have significant experience in collecting, processing and integrating thematic data.

Certain steps have already been taken to move from purely national GI initiatives to a more European approach in mapping, statistics, utilities, environment and transport. In topographical mapping the European NMAs created CERCO (Comité Européen des Responsables de la Cartographie Officielle) in 1980 for exchanging practical experience. In 1993 CERCO created the MEGRIN group (Multipurpose European Ground Related Information Network) via a Memorandum of Understanding signed by 17 countries, to develop closer co-operation in order to be better prepared for providing EU-wide cartographic data. Their first success was the creation of the Seamless Administrative Boundary Dataset for Europe (SABE). Both CERCO and MEGRIN maintain regular contact with the European Commission and work closely with groups such as CEN TC287 and EUROGI. At the research level, the European Science Foundation has supported the GISDATA programme to stimulate international research in GI.(29) GISIG(30) is a sectoral UETP financed under the COMETT programme to further international training and co-operation in GI between industry and universities.

In 1994, the European Umbrella Organisation for Geographic Information (EUROGI) was formed to bring together national and European organisations for GI that cover fields wider than those addressed by CERCO and MEGRIN. Today 16 countries and 7 European organisations are members, or are in the process of joining (Table 4), and more new members are expected. In the short period since it was formed, EUROGI has set up Research and Training Directories and completed a study on legal protection of GI. It has stimulated discussion on GI policies at the European level and has been instrumental in catalysing national GI activities in several countries. EUROGI and its members represent GI practitioners through national and European GI associations and it is well placed to initiate practical consultations on the EGII.

Several commercial organisations in the form of vendors of technology or data suppliers have already played major roles in creating European-wide datasets or in providing European-wide technical support for GI. These organisations should also be involved in the development of an EGII because they will be responsible for implementing the decisions made at international level and for providing the tools. At the commercial level, several alliances have been formed between both large corporations and SMEs (Small and Medium sized Enterprises), in different business sectors, in order to collect and integrate various types of GI, especially in the areas of transport and tourism. Such commercial initiatives should be encouraged wherever possible and the EGII will create a more stable business climate for use of GI.

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11. Conclusions and recommendations

The major impediments to the widespread and successful use of GI in Europe are not technical, but political and organisational. The lack of a European mandate on GI is retarding development of joint GI strategies and is causing unnecessary costs in data acquisition and data conversion, retarding the development of new goods and services and reducing competitiveness. This situation can be improved through a European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII) with a European government level mandate, created and operated by and for the GI community.

The concept for the composition and development of the EGII is already being established via a wide consultation process, on-going in the GI community, initiated and supported by DG XIII/E. Strong political support and visionary leadership are needed to initiate the EGII. Because Europe needs a well-defined EGII, and because no existing organisation has the political mandate to create GI policy at a European level, the European Commission could help define and implement the EGII by providing:

  • Effective communications (in the widest sense) between all actors involved in the EGII, including electronic forums and agreement on common terminology;
  • Incentives for wide participation of actors, both public and private, which will be proposed to the Council of Ministers as concrete, funded actions.

The political issues can be addressed through an EGII Steering Committee to be chaired by a high ranking individual from within one of the major EU institutions. The Committee would include representatives from the Member States, from other EU institutions with direct concern for pan-European GI issues, and major actors from the wider European GI community, across industry sectors.

This Committee would empower an EGII Working Group, made up of representatives from governmental agencies and commercial data providers and users, to create a broad-based European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII) within a target period of 5 years. This initiative would take account of important developments elsewhere in the world, such as the US NSDI, the Petroleum Industry's POSC, the Open GIS Consortium and efforts of the UNEP/GRID. The Working Group could be convened by EUROGI who, with appropriate funding, would provide the secretariat. Final composition of the EGII Working Group would be decided by the Steering Committee. Typical participants would include government and international organisations such as national mapping and statistical agencies; EU Institution representatives, such as EUROSTAT/GISCO and the CEO; EU-wide organisations such as CERCO/MEGRIN and GISDATA/ESF; plus vendors associations representatives from major European commercial providers of geographic information products and services.

The EGII would comprise agreements on the composition and availability of base data and additional thematic data, exchange formats and the standards to be used for establishing a comprehensive metadata system. This metadata should at least include information on data types, scales and projections, date of acquisition and processing, data quality, legal aspects, pricing and availability. The provision of comprehensive metadata is essential for establishing an open GI market in Europe.

Once established, the EGII should be self-financing and self-regulating through the participation and self-interest of GI providers and users (as is the case with POSC). Funds are necessary, however, to bring the various parties together and to initiate the proceedings that will lead to the desired state of affairs. Finance is required for a team leader, a secretariat staff and facilities to initiate the necessary discussions and to bring potential partners together.

Existence of a formal EGII will stimulate and guide the technical, business and social acquisition and use of GI along common European lines and will ensure incentives for the wide participation of actors, both public and private.

An important step forward could be taken via a Communication to the Council of Ministers and Parliament. Once a political mandate has been agreed for creation of the EGII, then the practical actions needed to make the EGII a major contributor to future European wealth and well-being can be initiated as soon as possible. Back to top


Table 1. Major trans-border regions in Europe

Region Countries
1The Baltic SeaDenmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Germany, Poland.
2The RhineGermany, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands
3The MeuseFrance, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg
4The Ruhr complexGermany, Netherlands, Belgium
5Mediterranean Coastal stripItaly, France, Spain
6The AlpsFrance, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, (Slovenia).
7The North SeaUnited Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden.
8The Nordkap regionNorway, Sweden, Finland, Russia
9The Northeast AtlanticPortugal, Spain, France, Ireland, United Kingdom,
10Paris-Brussels regionFrance, Belgium.
11Southern ScandinaviaDenmark, Sweden, (Germany, Norway).
12Southern alpine industryFrance, Switzerland, Italy (Lyon - Geneva - Milan).
13The PyreneesFrance, Spain

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Table 2. New GI products and services

New Products applicationsNew services and
Spatial Decision support systems for industryAnalysis of spatially distributed assets, investments and customers in banking and commerce.
In-car real time navigation (DRIVE project)Marketing and customer profiling Location of industry and infrastructure
Digital data collection tools (e.g. GPS)Choice and location of Health Care facilities
New database systems designed to cope with complex dataOptimization and control of Emergency Services
Portable office with linked laptop, GPS receiver and cellular phoneThe analysis of the distribution of crime by the police
Real time yield recording systems in combine harvestersRoad pricing and traffic monitoring as a function of traffic density
Systems for adjusting fertilizer applications to soil fertilityMarine and river navigation, air transport optimization
Personalised navigation systems for the blindReal Estate analyses
Multimedia systems for visual planning and enhancing value of conventional databases are providing "visual GIS" for a host of hurricanes. applications ranging from real estate through street planning to landscape architecture and environmental clean-up.Real-time modelling of natural hazards and their consequences - landslides, eruptions, earthquakes, flooding, forest fires,
On-line monitoring systems for floods and other natural hazardsEnvironmentally sensitive extraction of natural resources
Goods delivery optimizing programs.Crop yield monitoring, modelling, policy and set aside.
Energy collectors from wind, sun and tides.Tourism - optimizing and allocation of resources.
Design packages for energy efficient local and design of buildingsManaging fish stocks
City traffic management systemsModelling sources of renewable energy resources
Automated samplers for pollutants in soil, water and airEpidemiological analyses

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Table 3. European Union Documents governing legal policy (31)

  1. Amended proposal for a Council Directive on the Legal Protection of Databases COM(93) 464 final - SYN 393, Brussels, October 1993.
  2. Amended proposal for a Council Directive on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data COM(92) final - SYN 287, Brussels, October 1992. (Common position (EC) No 1/95 of 20.2.95 adopted by the Council - see OJ C93 13 April 1995)
  3. Council Directive on General Product Safety 92/95/EEC, Brussels 29.06.1992.
  4. Proposal for a Council Directive on the liability of Suppliers of Services COM(90) 482 final - SYN 308, Brussels, 1990. (Communication from the Commission concerning new directions on the liability of suppliers and services, COM(94) 260 - final, Brussels 23.06.94).
  5. Council Directive on Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts, 93/12/EEC, Brussels, 05.04.1993.
  6. Council Directive on the Legal Protection of Computer Programs (Software Directive) 91/250/EEC, Brussels, 14.05.91.
  7. Council Directive on Harmonising the Protection of Copyright and certain related areas 93/98/EEC, Brussels, 29.10.93. (Commission Green Paper on Copyright and Related Rights in the Information Society, COM(95) 382 final, 19.07.1995.
  8. Council Directive relating to the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States concerning misleading advertising (Deceptive Publicity) 450/84/EEC, Brussels, 10.09.84.
  9. European Commission - "Guidelines for improving the synergy between the public and private sectors in the information market", 1989.

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Table 4. Members of EUROGI (21 February 1996)

1. INGIO College (Interdisciplinary National Geographic Information Organisations)

AESIGSpainAssociation Espanola de Sistems de Informacion Geographic y Territorial
RAVIThe NetherlandsNetherlands Council for Geographic Information
AGIUnited KingdomAssociation for Geographic Information
AFIGEOFranceAssociation Français pour l'Information Géographique
AM/FM-ItalyItalyAutomated Mapping/Facilities Management)
NDCGreeceNational Documentation Centre
ULISwedenResearch and Development Council for Land Information and Technology
SOGISwitzerlandSwiss Organisation for Geo-Information
DDGIGermanyGerman Umbrella Organisation for Geo-Information
ProGISFinlandPromoting Geographic Information
CNIGPortugalCentro Nacional de Informatacao Geographica
AM/FM ItItalyAutomated Mapping/Facilities management, Italy
IRLOGIIrelandIrish Organisation for Geographic Information
GTIM-SIGLuxembourgGroupe de Travail Interministeriel - SIG
CCBelgiumCommission Federale de Coordination pour SIG
HUNAGIHungaryHungarian Association for Geographic Information
NKTFNorwayThe Norwegian Assoc. for Cartography, Gedesy, Hydrography and Photogrammetry

2. EOGI College (European Organisations for Geographic Information)

EGISEuropean Conference on Geographic Information Systems
AM/FMEurope Automated Mapping/Facilities Management - European Division
CERCOComité Européen des Responsables de la Cartographie Officielle
GISIGGeographical Information Systems International Group
GIVEGeographic Information Vendors Europe
GISPEGeographic Information Service Producers in Europe
UDMSUrban Data Management Society

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(1)   White Paper on "Growth, Competitiveness and Employment: The Challenges and Ways Forward into the 21st Century", Supplement 6/93, Bulletin of the European Communities, ISBN 92-826-7000-7, available from the Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, L-2985, Luxembourg.

(2) "Europe and the Global Information Society: Recommendations to the European Council", 26 May 1994.

(3) The G7 comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and the USA.

(5) The French Minister for Equipment, Transport and Tourism, M. Bosson, in a letter to President Delors, suggested that the EU provide a stronger political impetus to geographic information at the European level to further the creation of seamless homogeneous digital maps of Europe. He also referred to activities in the United States relating to the establishment and development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) and the positive influence of US President Clinton's Executive Order of 11 April 1994, which set the whole process in motion. Subsequently, Commissioner Bangemann received letters from Mr Rexrode, German Minister of Economics, and from Mr Borell, Spanish Minister of Public Works, Transport and Environment, both urging a stronger political initiative from the European Commission, increasing support to EUROGI and the definition and creation of a European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII).

(6) European Umbrella Organisation for Geographic Information, an independent pan-European "association of associations" created in 1994 under an initiative of the IMPACT programme of DG XIII/E.

(7) MEGRIN - "Multipurpose European Ground Related Information Network" set up by CERCO (Comité Européen des Responsables de la Cartographie Officielle) in 1993.

(8) "GIS Dictionary" - A Standards Committee Publication of the Association for Geographic Information (AGI), UK, Version no. 1.1, STA/06/91, published January 1991.

(9) Betak, J. and Vaudya, A. (1991). "On becoming an Information-Based Company: A role for GIS." GIS World, Vol 4, 44-47.

(10) Hernando de Soto (Peruvian entrepreneur and economist), "The Missing Ingredient", Economist, 11 September 1993.

(11) Petra Gartzen, Dataquest Europe Ltd., from forthcoming study on GI in Europe, to be published 1996.

(12) Fabrizio Jemma, letter to GISDATA and GISIG members from Eurimage, 28 July 1995.

(13) "The Basic Geographic Information of the Baltic Drainage Basin", National Board of Waters and the Environment, Helsinki 1994. ISBN 951-47-9696-9.

(14) GIS World, 1994

(15) "The Basic Geographic Information of the Baltic Drainage Basin", National Board of Waters and the Environment, Helsinki 1994. ISBN 951-47-9696-9.

(16) Joel Morrison (Geography Division, US Bureau of the Census, Washington), "What is the status of Worldwide Topographic Mapping in the Twentyfirst Century?", keynote paper Cambridge Conference for National Mapping Organisations, Cambridge, UK, 25 July - 1 August, 1995.

(17) GIS Europe, May 1995.

(18) ARC-News 16(4), 1995.

(19) CEN, the European Committee on Standards, set up its Technical Committee TC 287 with the aim of creating the standards required in the field of geographic information. Within its further technical committee, TC 278, the topic of geographic information data standards for road, transport and traffic telematics purposes is also addressed.

(20) ISO also set up two technical committees, ISO TC 211 for geographic information and ISO TC 204 for road telematics.

(21) "The Basic Geographic Information of the Baltic Drainage Basin", National Board of Waters and the Environment, Helsinki 1994. ISBN 951-47-9696-9.

(22) The French Minister for Equipment, Transport and Tourism, M. Bosson, in a letter to President Delors, suggested that the EU provide a stronger political impetus to geographic information at the European level to further the creation of seamless homogeneous digital maps of Europe. He also referred to activities in the United States relating to the establishment and development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) and the positive influence of US President Clinton's Executive Order of 11 April 1994, which set the whole process in motion. Subsequently, Commissioner Bangemann received letters from Mr Rexrode, German Minister of Economics, and from Mr Borell, Spanish Minister of Public Works, Transport and Environment, both urging a stronger political initiative from the European Commission, increasing support to EUROGI and the definition and creation of a European Geographic Information Infrastructure (EGII).

(23) Metadata is defined as data which describes the characteristics of a data set such as content and quality, and provides details on points of contact to view or to acquire the data.

(24) European Umbrella Organisation for Geographic Information, an independent pan-European "association of associations" created in 1994 under an initiative of the IMPACT programme of DG XIII/E.

(25) The European Science Foundation GISDATA research programme was set up in 1992 and involves collaboration between university and government research organisations in all European countries.

(26) A. Bastiaansen, (Tele Atlas, Ghent, Belgium), "Pan European Geographic Data, the Critical Success Factor for GIS Business Applications", in GIS for Business, GeoInformation International, pp 95-97, 1995.

(27) GIS Europe, May 1995.

(28) POSC (Petrochemical Open Software Corporation) - digital information exchange infrastructure set up by the international petroleum industry for standardization and integration of software and data.

(29) The European Science Foundation GISDATA research programme was set up in 1992 and involves collaboration between university and government research organisations in all European countries.

(30) GISIG (Geographical Information Systems International Group) is a European-wide consortium of GI groups in universities and industry, direct from Genoa and originally set up under the COMETT programme. It is promoted by the Genova Richerche Consortium.

(31) mainly from the Legal Guide for Information Service Providers and Users, published by the European Information Industry Association (EIIA), February, 1995, with support from DG XIII/E. Other material not from this source is shown in italics.

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