INSPIRE and OGC APIs - Part 1: Modernising INSPIRE

Satellite image of Europe

Within the broader context of the European Strategy for Data, the Joint Research Centre (the European Commission’s science and knowledge service) is collaborating with the EU Member States on modernising the technological stack for INSPIRE. As part of this modernisation, there is now an effort to use data standards “as is” rather than developing INSPIRE-specific extensions to them, thus facilitating the use of “off the shelf” software for the delivery of INSPIRE data. This desire for modern, simple, understandable standards has resulted in OGC API - Features this year joining OGC’s SensorThings API as another INSPIRE Good Practice  - and other OGC APIs are likely to follow.

INSPIRE is a European Union initiative that came into force in 2007 to establish an infrastructure for spatial information in Europe that is geared to help to make spatial information more accessible and interoperable for a wide range of purposes supporting sustainable development.

“2021 has been really important for INSPIRE, as the community is currently in the process of evaluating the Directive, thus ensuring that it would remain fit for purpose within the new technological and policy context in Europe,” said Alexander Kotsev, Team leader, Joint Research Centre, European Commission. “From a technical and organisational perspective, we are actively working on an updated technical framework and further simplifying the technical requirements (see, for example, the open access journal article From Spatial Data Infrastructures to Data Spaces—A Technological Perspective on the Evolution of European SDIs).

Simpler standards

Obviously, the Internet and its associated technologies have changed substantially since 2007 - a time when “the cloud” was only just being understood to mean something more than impending rain, and it was still considered strange that Apple was trying to compete with the likes of Nokia in the phone market. Indeed, the accumulation of technological changes over this time has also affected how data standards are defined, developed, implemented, and used.

“If we look into how standards and their implementation is done now, compared to 14 years ago when the INSPIRE Directive entered into force, we would immediately notice several subtle differences,” said Alexander Kotsev.

“First, in the past, standards were excessively complex and tried to capture all possible use-cases - including even the most specific niche ones. This led to a substantial overhead and made standards difficult to implement and utilise. INSPIRE, fully reliant on such complex standards, inherited and further extended the requirements, assuming that hardcoding requirements in legislation was enough for clients, servers, providers, and users to follow. 

“Second, a linear process was followed with a very long implementation cycle (14 years in the case of INSPIRE). Even if successful in many aspects - like establishing a community and substantially increasing the volume of available public sector geospatial data - INSPIRE fell short in certain aspects because of the high complexity and sometimes limited support by tools.

“Now, having learned from those experiences, we want to ensure that the tools are able to handle the technical solutions well, and that stakeholders can easily access the data without having to go through hundreds of pages of specific technical documentation. 

“I use the opportunity to thank the OGC for facilitating this process through the many hackathons, which successfully conceptualised these web-friendly standards,” said Alexander Kotsev.

Indeed, JRC recently published “A vision for the technological evolution of Europe’s Spatial Data Infrastructures for 2030” in the form of the report INSPIRE - A Public Sector Contribution to the European Green Deal Data Space, which mentions the benefits of lightweight, agile standards - including OGC APIs - in section 6.4, ‘Agile standards.’

Bringing Benefits

The shift to simpler, modular, web-based standards brings with it many benefits to EU Member States, data providers, data users, and software developers alike.

“The benefits are manifold,” said Alexander Kotsev. “The good practices that we have endorsed provide a pragmatic approach for ensuring the public sector contribution to the setting up of the European Green Deal data space, as it is defined in the ambitious European Strategy for Data. Within that context, through the OGC APIs, INSPIRE data will easily be reusable together with other data such as those generated by citizens and private companies.

“First and foremost, users can now easily consume the data without having to read hundreds of pages of technical documentation, but instead are empowered to immediately start interacting with the data and build working prototypes in an agile manner. 

“Second, data providers, which in our case are public authorities, can use the opportunity to modernise their technological stack and do a better job of serving their stakeholders. In the API4INSPIRE study, the pros/cons, costs and benefits for the Member States’ public authorities that provide INSPIRE data to make use of OGC APIs were assessed and recommendations were given in terms of how to start using them.

“Third, ensuring that the OGC APIs are recognised as INSPIRE download services would open the market and act as a catalyst for the many open source geospatial projects and software vendors.”

Into the Future

The endorsement of more OGC Standards as INSPIRE Good Practice is likely to continue as more OGC API Standards are finalised, and more community members propose their - and other OGC Standards’ - endorsement.

“The endorsement of new standards in INSPIRE is entirely based on the demand of the community, which is empowered to submit proposals for good practices based on the specific needs of the different stakeholders,” said Alexander Kotsev. “In addition to OGC API - Features, the OGC SensorThings API standard is already endorsed as an INSPIRE good practice, which gives us a powerful opportunity to not only share feature data, but also spatio-temporal observation data. I am quite confident that other standards will follow soon, such as OGC API - Records. Similarly, regarding data encoding, together with the community, we are working very actively on different data encodings such as GeoJSON and more recently GeoPackage,” said Alexander Kotsev.

So, 14 years after its creation - and at a time when the need for sustainable development is greater than ever - INSPIRE has evolved to continue to provide accessible and interoperable geospatial data to the European community and beyond. And, thanks to INSPIRE’s growing support of the OGC API Family of standards, stakeholders can can access and publish it in a manner that has grown simpler and more useful over time.

Alexander Kotsev offers his thanks to his “many colleagues for their enthusiasm and hard work. In particular, big thanks to Heidi Vanparys, Jari Reni, Clemens Portele, Thijs Brentjens, Sylvain Grellet, all members of the sub-group who worked on the good practice, Michael Lutz, Marco Minghini, Jordi Escriu and the whole JRC INSPIRE team, and of course all our colleagues and friends at the OGC.”

stylized INSPIRE logo on grass with sky in background