A note to the world’s environmental community on the eve of the 140th anniversary of the Metre Convention

World Metrology Day, 20 May, is an annual celebration of the Metre Convention on 20 May 1875.  The signing of an agreement by representatives of seventeen nations at that Convention set the framework for global collaboration in the science of measurement for use in industrial, commercial and societal applications. The original aim of the Metre Convention – the world-wide uniformity of measurement – remains as important today as it was in 1875. Now, to leverage the benefits of uniform measurement in the digital age, we need to take the next step.

I like the logo of the BIPM-OIML Resource Center on the World Metrology Day website:

Fresh from editing the recently announced OGC white paper, Information Technology Standards for Sustainable Development, I can’t help wanting to wrap the BIP-OIML Resource Center’s logo in symbols for communication:


The whole purpose of measurement is communication about quantities. When you have measured something – CO2 in the air, for example – you have taken the first step. When you preserve that measurement in a record (or feed it into a data stream), you have taken the second step, which is to make that data available to someone else. When you publish that record on the Internet in an open standard encoding with universally discoverable, readable and actionable information about who, what, when, where, how and why the sample was collected you have taken a step into the 21st century: You have made that sample part of an integrated global “common operating picture”, useful for studying and managing CO2. Due to the multiplier factor of providing the data as part of the global information infrastructure and by encoding and publishing that datum in an open standard way, the datum becomes far more valuable. The more that datum is used, now and in the future, the more valuable it becomes.

The OGC Observations & Measurements (O&M) Encoding Standard (now also an ISO standard) is an essential standard in the the OGC’s Sensor Web Enablement suite of standards. In developing O&M, OGC members relied on the BIPM/ISO 1993 International Vocabulary of Basic and General Terms in Metrology for its rigorous descriptions of measurements and for background on the philosophy of measurement. SWE standards establish a common language for communicating about what measurements are taken, and where, and they provide for specification of any of BIPM’s relevant International System of Units (SI) standards or alternative national standards. Other OGC standards establish a common language for communicating about where things are located, and they provide for specification of BIPM’s SI distance and geometry standards or alternative national distance and geometry standards.

Computers require specificity in the naming and ordering of data elements. To make data universally discoverable, accessible and actionable it is necessary to use universal encoding standards that provide that specificity. Also, the flow of digital data (including environmental data, of course) and digital instructions inside computing machines and between computing machines depends on a corresponding framework of service interface standards that “know” how to read and write data that are so encoded.

Key members of the hydrology, meteorology, climatology and geology communities came together inside and outside the OGC to create international open standards and best practices for encoding their particular kinds of geoscientific data. Earth phenomena of any type are causally connected. These experts working in collaboration have defined and are defining new OGC standards, profiles of existing OGC standards, and best practices to make their data communications consistent with respect to space and time and systems of measurement. They used the OGC forum and process to tap into expertise in geospatial technology, data modeling, and the Internet and Web infrastructure. All their data has a spatial component, so these four environmental standards working groups benefited and continue to benefit from close contact with other working groups in the OGC that focus on standards for Earth imaging, GIS, sensor webs, urban 3D models, Augmented Reality, linked computer models, etc. By doing their work in the OGC, they also had (and still have!) the opportunity to make their requirements known to the Information Technology companies they depend on. In addition, they were able to use the OGC’s Communication and Outreach Program to be sure their work is well known and well vetted by interested experts outside the OGC and around the world.

Thousands of years ago, in places around the world, standards for measuring and accounting (and standards for money and writing) marked the beginning of cooperation on a grand scale – civilization. The world’s current civilizations are growing and struggling toward a workable and sustainable existence together on a planet of limited natural resources and civilization-stressing climate changes. This challenge calls for a new regime of standards that support cooperative Earth stewardship on a grand scale. One necessary condition for success is rapid development of standards that will underpin not only geoscience research, but also Environmental Accounting.

The Metre Convention 140 years ago ushered in an unprecedented period of discovery, invention and commerce. Discovery, invention and commerce are still growing, and it’s clear now that the growth, and its associated environmental impacts, are exponential. Now we need international standards working groups who will usher in an unprecedented period of Earth stewardship. Earth stewardship on a grand scale requires Environmental Accounting, and Environmental Accounting requires standard encodings for environmental data.