Open geospatial web supports Port Environmental Management



Sam Bacharach, Executive Director, Outreach and Community Adoption, Open Geospatial Consortium, Inc. Herndon, VA, USA


Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and other geospatial technologies help port managers track and analyse factors that need to be understood for comprehensive Environmental Management. But the old definition of ‘GIS’ as one system that manages all your geospatial data is somewhat limiting. In this article we will look at how geospatial technology is evolving in step with the World Wide Web, and what this means for port managers who seek to get maximum benefit from information systems that support Environmental Management Systems (EMS).


Ports are places full of ships and boats, airplanes, and industrial facilities that connect people and businesses with the rest of the world. They are organisationally, physically, legally and environmentally complex, with many stakeholders, many facilities with different owners, many public and private sector organisations with management roles, many overlapping jurisdictions, and many natural features and phenomena that interact with the many human features and phenomena. Good port management requires awareness of all of these and good communication with all of the organisations involved.

It is important to keep in mind that an EMS is not a computer system. According to the ISO 14001 standard, environmental management systems are “that part of the overall management system which includes organisational structure, planning activities, responsibilities, practices, procedures, processes and resources for developing, implementing, achieving, reviewing and maintaining the environmental policy.”

GIS and other Information and Communication Technology (ICT) products can help managers ‘develop, implement, achieve, review and maintain’ environmental policy if those products work together to support communication with all of the organisations involved in port management. Thus, interoperability is the key factor when considering the purchase of a GIS or any information system component for port management.

An example

Oil spills are a frequent environmental problem in harbours. To enforce policies governing this type of pollution, port environmental authorities need to discover the spills, document them, track their progress, contain and collect the oil, investigate to learn the time and place of the spill, determine who was responsible, and take appropriate administrative and legal action. These steps might involve a number of different departments or different organisations who have purchased their hardware and software systems at different times for different purposes. The first reports might be by telephone from a ferry boat captain. A harbour patrol officer might use a GPS to document the location and extent of the spill, and the officer might enter the data into a laptop that might or might not have an internet connection. An environmental organisation might track the movement of the spill using similar technology, but from a different software vendor. An environmental cleanup contractor will want all of the existing data and will produce more, which will be presented in a formal report. An investigator will want all the available data and will need to use it in preparing other reports, and the data presentations in the reports will be useful to the legal team preparing a case against the polluter.

If any of the parties mentioned above have technical problems using the data or services from others, the management process slows down.

Web-based solutions

The World Wide Web became worldwide because it is based on open standards. Open standards in this context are specifications for interfaces, encodings and protocols that anyone can use, free of charge. They are generally developed in non-exclusive consensus standards organisations. Network engineers universally use the open TCP/IP protocols, and website developers don’t need to pay for a license to build websites based on http and html, two of the key open web standards.

For more than a decade, developers of all types of software have been moving in this direction, using open, standard interfaces to make their products’ functionality accessible via the web. A wide range of standards organisations have worked to create new standards that extend the capabilities of web-based computing in many different domains of activity.

Keep in mind that open standards do not mean free software. ‘Open source’ software is free, and open standards help open source developers, but open standards also benefit vendors of proprietary software products.

GIS vendors and their customers and solution providers came together in 1994 to form a consortium to develop open interfaces that would improve interoperability among GIS systems. Originally called the Open GIS Consortium, the name was changed to Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC®) to reflect a fundamental change in the industry. That change involved the recognition that most data in databases has a spatial component, and many kinds of software can be fitted with open geospatial interfaces to enhance their geospatial capabilities in today’s ‘geospatially enabled’ information environment.

Vendors and integrators have been implementing the open standards to integrate geospatial information of all kinds into their customers’ information systems. This progress supports port managers’ communication and cooperation with the other players in port-wide environmental management.

Benefits of the geospatial web

Productivity improves when workers are able to assemble and share a range of information among various departments and present it in an understandable way that is useful for interdepartmental staff, external stakeholders, business partners, clients, and the public. The decision making process is improved by enabling multiple scenarios to be run efficiently and rapidly.

A GIS is essentially a spatial database that enables spatial queries, such as, “what are the roads that will be impassable if there is a two-metre storm surge?” or “which refineries are closest to this contaminated region?” The data can be flexibly portrayed in maps that can be viewed or printed. A spatial database can contain countless thematic map layers, such as elevation, aids to navigation, average surface water temperature, vegetation type, land use, land cover, and transportation (roads, railroads, canals, etc.).

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