Best of the best

At this year’s ITX ceremonies in Toronto, four category awards were presented to those applications that best exemplified certain key criteria. Category winners were Land Information Ontario for Collaboration; Scotiabank for Business Value; Sun Life Financial for IT Leadership; and the Ontario Government’s Justice Cluster for Business Leadership.

In addition, a Best-in-Show award was presented to Land Information Ontario.

This two-part article takes an in-depth look at the winning applications, starting this month with Land Information Ontario and Scotiabank. Part II appears in October.

By Heather A. Smith

Land Information Ontario: Tackling IT’s Next Frontier

As any CIO will attest, cross-functional or inter-organizational systems are especially difficult to develop because of the huge challenges involved in getting all of the affected groups to collaborate and agree on what needs to be done. Even when there is great willingness to work together, these systems often flounder due to differences in terminology and incompatible data. Simple information, such as name and address, can often be found in different parts of a single organization in many formats, meaning different things and used for different purposes.

Multiply these challenges across many organizations and you can begin to grasp what the members of the Land Information Ontario (LIO) project faced in 1998 when a single repository for geospatial data across all the province’s ministries, municipalities, conservation authorities, universities, First Nations groups, and non-governmental organizations was first proposed. Their success in accomplishing this daunting task was recognized at the 2003 ITX Awards where the LIO team won the Best Collaboration and the Best-in-Show Awards.

Proliferation of data

Geographic information is used everywhere. In Ontario, it is needed for natural resource management, agricultural purposes, transportation management, school bus routing, emergency response coordination, environmental assessment, urban planning and monitoring hazardous materials… to name just a few of its uses. Until recently, each ministry, municipality, school board or agency was responsible for developing and maintaining the information it needed. As a result, there was considerable duplication of data and much of it was poor quality.

Accurate, consistent data collected once and reused many times is a dream that is seldom realized in organizations. “Most businesses still do not treat information as an enterprise asset,” stated Jim Hamilton, Director of Information Resource Management at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and the senior IT executive for the LIO project. “The Information Management (IM) function is still buried in many business silos. This leads to problems with standardization, integration and cross-functional development.”

MNR information was standardized across the province in the early 1990s, but it was soon recognized that tools were needed to access and maintain it. Then, other ministries (e.g., Transportation, Agriculture, Environment) began to request it for their work. This not only raised awareness of the broad need for accurate geospatial information, but also highlighted many gaps and overlaps in what was available.

“Collecting land information is expensive,” explained Brian Maloney, Surveyor General of Ontario and coordinator of LIO. “As budgets were tightened, it became obvious that we had to work together.”

Therefore, after much consultation with many stakeholders, the development of a new geospatial information warehouse was approved by Ontario’s Management Board in 1998. That was the easy part. The hard part was getting organizations to recognize that what one calls a “drainage network”, another calls “rivers” and a third, “fish habitats” were in fact the same thing.

“A common language is essential to effective information sharing,” said Hamilton. “We needed a way to talk to each other in order to collect this information and distribute it. This was a tough nut to crack involving a lot of negotiation and compromise.”

Organizing the data

IM experts suggest separating data from applications so that the same data elements can be readily reassembled for multiple purposes. LIO is a classic example of the value of this approach. It stresses IM and access for three types of data:

• Geo-referencing data – surveyed control data with a specific geographic context (e.g., latitude, longitude) on which all other geospatial information is based.

• Fundamental data – base information that would be included on a standard map (e.g., roads, waterways).

• Thematic data – data serving a specific business purpose, (e.g., fish spawning sites, the location of abandoned mines).

Previously, this information resided in many different organizations. “Everyone had to figure out who they should be talking to and how to access the information they needed at the different ministries,” said Greg Bay, Manager of the Geospatial Warehouse. “Now they go to one place to get information they need.”

Development of LIO involved four simultaneous, inter-connected projects:

1. Providing Access. The chief benefit of participating in an inter-organizational data warehouse is gaining access to other’s information. Negotiating access agreements was therefore a huge part of LIO’s success. Anne Halverson, Manager of Information Access, joined LIO in 1999 with a mandate to develop a “club” to share geospatial data across a multitude of organizations. “We had to develop a legal agreement and policies they could all agree to,” she stated. This involved defining individual responsibilities, how the data would be used, intellectual property rights and liability issues. “There is risk in sharing data,” she noted. “We had to help them see that the benefits outweighed the risks and then get the agreement approved by each organization’s lawyers.” The Ontario Geospatial Data Exchange (OGDE) provides the legal framework for inter-organizational information sharing. Members agree their information can be used by any other member for non-commercial, internal purposes with no restrictions. However, any organization wishing to publish or make other use of the information must first gain the approval of the organization providing the data, which retains ownership.

Although 75 organizations have become members to date, “there is still some resistance to sharing,” explained Halverson, who has made hundreds of presentations about the exchange. “Most reluctance is based on a lack of awareness of the potential benefits, as well as a belief that such information might be a money generator.” However, research shows that making data available freely is a much greater economic stimulator than retaining it for sale. “Eventually, we would like to make much of our information available free-of-charge,” said Hamilton. “When everyone holds on to their data for sale, price becomes a significant impediment and often nothing gets done. Removing this barrier allows us to become more efficient and competitive as a province.” To this end, Halverson has also established a Forestry Data Exchange between members of the forestry industry and MNR, and is working on other exchanges between government and the private sector.

2. Creation of a Geospatial Information Warehouse. The technical aspects of this project involved building a data base, integrating information, developing tools to get data into and out of the warehouse and enabling Internet browsing. A metadata repository (similar to a card catalogue) was also developed so people could search for information. While Bay’s focus is technology, he admits the biggest challenges in building LIO were organizational, not technical. LIO is based on open standards. However, where users have legacy systems based on proprietary standards, Bay’s team helps them use middleware to exchange data. A key challenge has been managing the huge volumes of data involved, so performance improvement is an ongoing effort. Education in new design criteria is also important. “Real-time information is central to leveraging the potential of this warehouse. We must educate the organizations designing applications using this data on the need to update the warehouse, rather than replicating the information in different files.”

3. Collection and Integration. A common geographic information base allows organizations to concentrate on their specific mandates without having to create the underlying framework. For example, the Ontario Road Network provides a single common representation of the roads in Ontario that can be used by all levels of government, the public and other organizations. While creating this information once is obviously the most cost-effective way to go, selling the concept to the different organizations involved required a significant marketing effort. “Most organizations agree that having one set of data makes sense but resist when it means providing their data for others to use,” explained Raphael Sussman, Manager of LIO. Convincing them to participate in the project involved many hundreds of presentations, as well as one-on-one meetings and working up the chain of command to garner support for the initiative. “We had to do our homework and learn how participation would benefit their organization,” stated Sussman. “We had to look around to find a high profile area where we could demonstrate a success.”

A key win for the group was the One-Window Screening Tool for use in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs (MMAH). Previously, any municipality wishing to build a subdivision had to submit its plans to the Ministry and wait for several months while they were circulated to various ministries to make sure they didn’t contravene any statutes and guidelines. The new tool enables one analyst to superimpose the outer limits of the subdivision on a computer-displayed map. It then addresses dozens of geography-based questions submitted by the different ministries (e.g., proximity to highways, drinking water wells, wildlife habitats, etc.). In minutes, it generates a report detailing any problems. “This tool not only provides a visible, direct benefit to municipalities, it also helps people to see the bigger picture – how different geospatial data can be linked together for a purpose,” stated Sussman.

4. Development of Standards and Data Management. Once collected, if data is not well-managed, it ceases to be useful. Rob Parry, the Manager of Land & Resource Data Administration noted, “In the past, we didn’t keep our data consistent and up-to-date. We needed to develop a sustainable data model.” This model has six key components:

• Custodianship – confirming who has accountability for a data asset.

• Standards – determining how the asset is portrayed as geospatial data, its key attributes and lineage (e.g., source, relative accuracy).

• Maintenance model – roles and responsibilities for keeping the data updated.

• Access and use protocols