GeoSUR: Setting the Foundation for a Regional SDI in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Eric van Praag 1
Santiago Borrero 2

1 CAF – the Latin American Development Bank
2 Pan-american Institute of Geography and History (PAIGH)

Screenshot of geosur.info screen

Screenshot of geosur.info.

With 21 million square kilometers of territory and more than 580 million people, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is a privileged region, blessed with some of the highest biodiversity on the planet. The region also has abundant natural, mineral, water, energy and human resources that should allow it to achieve a high level of development over the coming decades, with good management and appropriate public policies. Effective planning is of paramount importance to transform these resources into effective development and it should be supported by the effective use of geographic information (GI) needed to make informed decisions.

Ready access to reliable information is key to decision making, but it gradually has become more difficult to realize due to the ever-increasing volume of information produced, and the difficulty producers have in making it available in adequate platforms to apply to decision making systems (DSS). Since the late 1990s, there has been a growing realization in the LAC region of the need to make spatial and environmental data freely available for the regional public good. The Pan-American Institute of Geography and History (PAIGH), the Andean Community (CAN), the Central American Integration System (SICA), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and other regional entities have strived to increase the volume of data that is accessible to the public and have developed several regional initiatives that lay the foundation for the development of a region-wide network in the form of the GeoSUR Spatial Information Network.

The mission of the GeoSUR Program is to facilitate access to spatial data and information and to promote the development of regional datasets. GeoSUR was originally developed under the aegis of the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), which promotes the development of transportation, energy and telecommunications infrastructure. Since the program’s inception in 2007, GeoSUR has grown to serve an audience interested in using reliable information to support development related processes, both regionally and within individual countries. Today, more than 23 countries and about 55 national agencies participate in GeoSUR.

The three main components GeoSUR are a geoportal, a network of map services, and a regional topographic processing service. These services allow the user to search, find, view, analyze and process local, national and regional spatial data in ways that were undreamed of a few years ago.

The GeoSUR Portal, a window into LAC´s spatial information

GeoSUR has developed, with support from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center, the first regional portal providing access to geographic data and services from all the LAC countries at geosur.info. Launched in October 2009, it provides a point of entry to the map services and metadata catalogs operated by GeoSUR’s partner agencies.

The Regional Portal provides access to a subset of the metadata holdings of its partner agencies. It keeps an updated and central metadata database that is periodically updated by an automatic harvesting mechanism that fetches metadata from the participating agency´s catalogs. The portal also contains a map viewer that allows the user to pull, open and view layers available in partner map services. The network architecture is decentralized in order to keep the data updated and close to its producers. Currently, there are more than 120 map services implementing the OGC Web Map Server (WMS) Interface Standard that are linked to the portal, and more than 11,000 metadata records available on its database, with more than 160,000 searchable partner metadata records. This is the first portal to offer access to spatial information for all the countries of the region in one place.

GeoSUR´s Network

Geospatial information served by the GeoSUR community is available through a decentralized network of map services established by partner agencies, with each agency committing to the development of standards-enabled map services and metadata catalogs. Participants act as data publishers and hold accounts in the portal that allow them to register their geoservices with the portal and administer them periodically.

[pullquote width="230" float="left"]The mission of the GeoSUR Program is to facilitate access to spatial data and information and to promote the development of regional datasets.[/pullquote]

GeoSUR emphasizes the use of recognized Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and ISO standards and protocols to achieve interoperability of its various geoservices. Participating agencies have the liberty of choosing the hardware and software platforms for sharing data with the network, provided they use regionally recognized standards, including those from the OGC and ISO.

OGC standards are extensively used by partner agencies to develop geoservices and they provide the glue that makes all the pieces fit together as we aim for the interoperability mantra. GeoSUR focuses on a simple set of well tested standards and protocols, such as WMS and the OGC Web Feature Service (WFS) and Catalog Services – Web (CSW) interface standards. Around 95 percent of the geoservices linked to the portal rely on OGC standards.

Most map services in the network contain national data and are operated by national agencies, but there are also regional map services operated by regional agencies. One of these is the GeoSUR Regional Map Service (RMS) launched in 2008, administered by CAF and PAIGH, and developed with support from USGS/EROS. The service has become a defacto clearinghouse for staging regional datasets developed by regional agencies that do not have platforms to serve this type of data, such as the Andean Community, the Interamerican Development Bank and others. Any regional or sub-regional datasets can be served through this mechanism.

The RMS has been integrated with the Condor service, a legacy CAF environmental map service that includes an environmental and social impact assessment tool useful for infrastructure planners. The Condor platform took more than 10 years to develop and it is now an integral part of the GeoSUR Platform.

GeoSUR´s Geoprocessing Service

GeoSUR offers a Topographic Processing Service (TPS), the first of its kind in the developing world that provides access to Digital Elevation Model (DEM) derivative products that can be generated on-the-fly for any location in the LAC region. Users can run the service models using an assorted set of DEMs at different resolutions, including 1 kilometer and 500, 250, 90, and 30 meters. The available TPS models include elevation profile, slope classification, dynamic watershed delineation, hill shade, elevation classification, aspect, viewshed, and raindrop trace, among others.

The service is part of the GeoSUR Regional Map Service, available at the GeoSUR Portal. Users can extract and download DEM data for any area in the LAC region, with the exception of the SRTM 30-meter dataset, and can perform analysis and download the results in all DEM resolutions.

Before launching the service, the USGS EROS Center filled the voids in the SRTM 30-meter dataset for the LAC region with ASTER GDEM and GTOPO30 data and created a set of seamless derived datasets that include hill shade, shaded relief, slope and aspect for the region, all of them available for viewing in the RMS.

“Important development decisions are often taken without the proper use of geographic information and modeling techniques that are now becoming widely available,” said Santiago Borrero, PAIGH´s secretary general. “We hope that GeoSUR, as a mechanism to facilitate free access to geo-information, will open the way for better decision making in the region.”

GeoSUR´s governance structure

GeoSUR is coordinated by the Andean Development Bank (CAF) and the Panamerican Institute of Geography and History (PAIGH), with technical assistance provided by the USGS EROS Center and the national mapping agencies of Spain, Colombia, Chile and Ecuador. Participation in GeoSUR is open to any spatial data producer, with emphasis on government agencies that produce official data that can be fed into the decision making process. Today, more than 50 agencies participate in GeoSUR , including geographic institutes, ministries of environment, planning agencies, academia, research institutions, electoral offices, and many others, all of which share the need to put GI on the Web for any and all users.

[pullquote width="260" float="right"]We hope that GeoSUR, as a mechanism to facilitate free access to geo-information, will open the way for better decision making in the region.”
– Santiago Borrero, PAIGH´s secretary general.[/pullquote]

GeoSUR provides training and technical assistance to all partner agencies as they develop the map services and metadata catalogs to be linked to the GeoSUR Geoportal and Regional Map Service. GeoSUR specialists are on-call to offer agencies both remote and on-site technical assistance. GeoSUR also sponsors peer-to-peer communications among participating specialists and periodically conducts web seminars on GeoSUR-related topics and annual program meetings, where policy and action plan components are analysed and projected.

GeoSUR has trained more than 120 specialists from the region in workshops held in the U.S. and Colombia. It also offers virtual training in geospatial topics and maintains an active program of webinars centered in topics of interest to its stakeholders. It also keeps an active mailing list of more than 250 geospatial specialists from the region.

“GeoSUR has made it possible to promote the treatment of geographic data as a common resource of mutual benefit to us all,” said Mick Wilson, Division of Early Warning and Assessment, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The way forward

The Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) of the Americas is a dynamic process based on independent building blocks progressively available at multipe levels. Much has been achieved, yet a lot more remains to be done. As we make GI available on the web through easy to use mechanisms, we expect users to ask more of this information, and we believe this is happening in GeoSUR. Having an ever-increasing pool of national and regional datasets at the user’s fingertips, combined with online tools that facilitate its analysis and geoprocessing, has spanned new and interesting developments.

In Sao Paulo State, Brazil, CAF, the State Energy Secretariat and the USGS have partnered to undertake a hydropower assessment by analysing every kilometer-long stretch of its river network, combining hydrological data provided by Brazilian agencies with the SRTM 30-meter DEM. The results of the analysis allow the users to pinpoint areas that have potential for placing small hydropower plants in a cost effective way. This approach can be replicated in other countries using the SRTM dataset and GeoSUR´s online processing tools.

Also in Brazil, CAF has initiated a project to develop an early warning system for floods and landslides, in cooperation with the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology and the Planetary Skin Institute. The system will be using the GeoSUR geoservices to stage new datasets and to run some of the prediction models. The system could be adapted to other countries, such as Colombia or Venezuela, that recently have suffered from catastrophic landslides and floods .

In the Andean Region, CAF plans to use the GeoSUR RMS as a visual and analytical tool to show historical deforestation and deforestation trends, together with spatial information useful for forest carbon trading under REDD+ schemes.

UNEP and other regional and global entities believe regional networks, such as GeoSUR, should be replicated in other areas of the developing world. The program will, in the following years, continue expanding its reach to new organizations and new realms, seeking to serve the needs of its partners in Latin America and the Caribbean. There is an exchange of ideas between GeoSUR and many of the efforts industry, academia and the public sector are advancing in the Americas to make spatial data interoperable and more accessible. By developing the program and its innovative services and applications beyond local, institutional and national borders, GeoSUR is consolidating the foundations for a truly regional SDI in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Eric van Praag coordinates the GeoSUR Program at CAF. Before joining CAF in 2006, he worked for the U.S. Geological Survey and the United Nations Environment Programme. He has done consulting work for several international organizations, including UNDP, WRI, the World Bank, the OAS, and WCMC.

Santiago Borrero is secretary general of the Pan American Institute of Geography and History (PAIGH). He served one term as president of the GSDI and was the inaugural chair for PC-IDEA, Permanent Committee for SDI for the Americas. He was director of the Colombian Geographic Institute (IGAC), the Colombian Development Projects Fund, the Association of Consulting Engineers of Colombia, and general manager of the Bogota Water Supply Co.