Spatial data infrastructures and services Experiences from the

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Department of Geography, FI-20014 University of Turku, Finland

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The building of a coastal SDI is a multifaceted process. The University of Turku Coastal Geography
Group is involved in diverse spatial data infrastructure and delivery processes in the northern Baltic
Sea area. The learned lessons underpin that the construction of coastal SDI’s require more attention in
the planning, collaboration and practical arrangements at the individual and institutional levels,
compared to the actual work load posed the technical implementation of the systems. The work
should also be rooted on known user needs rather than the developer’s intuition about them. Internet
maps provide a valuable tool to communicate about the coastal issues.



Representing the transition from land to sea, the coastal zones possess some unique
conceptual and practical challenges for spatial information and its handling. The coastal areas
are not only complex and dynamic environments to comprehend, but also their representation
using digital tools is not easy.

Many of the readily available digital map layers have been compiled primarily for either
terrestrial or marine environments. Their contents may thus not be ideal in the coastal areas,
which occur right at the margin of their primary areas of interest. Furthermore, the traditions
of surveying and mapmaking have been different between these two realms, and thus it is not
only a technical challenge to join together data about these environments, but it is to a great
deal also a conceptual dilemma. For example the semantic systems that characterise the
mapping entities and their interrelations may vary from one raw data to another. It is only
after considerations like these have been successfully addressed, when the building of coastal
spatial data infrastructure (SDI) and services can be grounded on a solid basis (Tolvanen &
Kalliola, submitted).

The needs for coastal SDI’s and spatial data services are ever increasing due to practical
shore development pressures that occur in different combinations in all coastal areas. As a
result, there are numbers of coastal SDI developers that work on these topics in different
countries. Each time, the ultimate goal of a to-be-coastal-SDI effort should be well defined
and clear in mind, since the process that follows can be long lasting and complex. Substantial
experimentation and common sense are always welcomed.
The University of Turku Coastal Geography Group (UTU-CGG) has taken part in many
different coastal SDI building efforts and in the establishment of spatial data viewing services
in the northern Baltic Sea, primarily in the SW coasts of Finland. This paper reports some of
these endeavours and the lessons learned. As we will present works done by many
collaborators, we would like to start this presentation by acknowledging them in a collective
way for sharing their experiences with us.


The practical needs for spatial data and information in the coastal areas usually come from
the essence to dictate environmentally sensible development. In the coastal zone where the
aquatic and terrestrial environments convene, many geographical and practical features are
particular. Already the physical setting of the coasts can be complex in geomorphological and
hydrological aspects, and also the ecological conditions of the shore areas are distinct.
Moreover, all these characteristics are dynamic, which calls for advanced geographical
understanding that can be reached by spatial-temporal modelling. For this, in turn, the
existing raw spatial data resources are valuable source materials, ranging from remotely
sensed imagery and ground truth observations through different map layers to survey data
representing the societal structure.

Another important reason for an increased interest for coastal data availability is posed by the
modern societal development, which should be increasingly coordinated and environmentally
controlled. To facilitate this on the coastal zone, individual countries and also the European
Union have established distinct regulations that involve among other activities a clear
orientation to increase the level of awareness about the special characteristics of the coastal
areas. Particularly important measures in this context within the EU level include Integrated
Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), Water Framework Directive, European marine strategy
and other efforts that involve the monitoring of the status of the environment. Any of these
interest areas require reliable spatial and ground truth data as a basis, and the union’s recent
directive named Infrastructure for Spatial Information for Europe (INSPIRE) supports the
building of such infrastructures. In the coastal areas, however, also some more refined
infrastructure measures than those described in INSPIRE may be needed.

In the northern Baltic, the requirements for rich coastal data and information resources are
remarkably sophisticated. For example the coastal zone in SW Finland is determined by
bedrock structures, which have created an exceptionally complex shoreline and a wide
archipelago belt between the mainland and the Baltic proper. This sea area, or the
Archipelago Sea, harbours over 25 000 islands of different sizes, forms and other detailed
characteristics. This level of fine scale complexity constitutes an endeavour for any mapping
and spatial modelling effort, and for the accuracy and other quality measures of the used

Through times, the SW-Finnish coast has also been in the focus of diverse of human
activities. In the recent times many traditional ways of livelihood on the islands have been
diminishing in importance, for example fishing and farming, whilst the pressure for
recreational use is ever increasing. It is a Finnish peculiarity to build private summer
residences by the shoreline, constituting of a small lot with a couple of buildings, mainly one
for living and the another one is the sauna that is built close to the shore. In earlier times it
was rather free to construct summer residences, but nowadays the coastal municipalities have
established master plans to dictate shore development. The more controlled does the planning
process become, the more precise are the natural and human factors that have to be taken into
account. Reliable information about the coastal environment and coastal development should
also be widely accessible in society.

In these circumstances the role of the academic community has been to explore practical
ways to proceed, even in the conditions of imperfect goal setting, or under the limitations
posed by financial, institutional, data access or time related restrictions. The initiatives where
the Coastal Geography Group has been involved vary from local through national to
international, and the thematic focus of the different works has varied from terrestrial to
marine environments, usually involving them both. In the following, we will highlight some
practical details of the different undertakings. We will proceed hierarchically, first describing
some UTU-CGG’s internal data management solutions, and then expanding to regional,
national and international efforts.


In the level of this university-based research group, SDI efforts are internal and aim to
support shared data usage by several professionals and students. The team’s interest emphasis
is in the coasts of SW Finland, and its data management rests on a collective data storage
regime covering a wide range of different topics. A number of commonly agreed data and
information management guidelines are thus demanded. A good coordination provides the
best conditions to support efficient substance work that is rooted on steadily accumulating
data resources and genuine interaction by different researchers.

UTU-CGG supports open and shared data policies, which implies that abundant primary and
modelled data is made available for also other interested parties through established
mechanisms. In the practical level, raw data and half-processed data are kept in the internal
data archive until their publication and dissemination is considered appropriate (Figure 1).
After this, metadata supported data files that may constitute both databases and map layers
will be deposited into a public data archive that has functioning metadata and data
dissemination services. The data management framework of UTU-CGG thus comprises both
internal and external components.
                                    UTU-CGG website                                    Diverse types of
                                    Research group’s interface
                                         in the Internet                                 information
                                                                                     about CGG activities

                                     “Maps and data”                                     “Map services”
                                                                                      UTU-CGG map service
                                                                                    WMS interface for other services

                                   “Coastal data portal”

                    access                                                   see
                    to                 about

                             file transfer                       file transfer

Public data repository               Research data resource                      External data sources
  UTU Spatial Data Archive               Spatial data in internal use               Many different sources

Figure 1. An overall view of the information management framework of the UTU Coastal Geography
Group (


In SW Finland, there is a regional geoinformatics collaboration network called
“Lounaispaikka”, which can be seen as a regional SDI (Nurmi & Kalliola 2004). Established
by the universities and environmental authorities of the region and having an operational
history of over half a decade, this network has become an important promoter of spatial
information and awareness in its operation area. The Lounaispaikka network and its web
services were designed and implemented without any clear examples known from any other
parts of the world, as most other SDI efforts and data services operate in national or
international levels, or they are project based and far too local.

The user interface for the established spatial data services is provided through the
Lounaispaikka web portal, which contains a metadata service for the region’s spatial data
resources, a data archive (UTU Spatial Data Archive, see Fig. 1) and the Lounaispaikka Map
Service. The map service provides a number of different sub-services, which can be activated
by using the tabs on the top of the browser frame. The sub-services designed for ordinary
citizens are easy to use and cartographically conventional, whist those serving professionals
may require some more understanding from their users, as diverse map contents can be
modified on the fly. Trained users will also find a possibility to make their own map
combinations from numerous available spatial datasets.
The technical implementation has been designed to support versatile uses of the same data
resources. Those files that are hosted within the Lounaispaikka context are organised in such
way that the all the different sub-services can use the same data resources, which diminishes
redundancy in maintenance. Many map resources also come from distributed sources, i.e.
from the servers of their producers, such as the National Land Survey, the Geological Survey
of Finland or the Finnish Meteorological Institute. From the national and INSPIRE
viewpoints, the service thus provides a truly functional example of a distributed spatial data
viewing service that collects information over the network according to the actual user

One subsystem is dedicated to the Archipelago Sea and it has a particular emphasis on
environmental research and inventories carried out in the region (Figure 2). This service does
not only show diverse maps that are topical to the area, but it also contains direct database
links to query information on selected topics. As an example, the user may find the locations
of regularly or irregularly sampled field stations of the surface waters or benthic fauna,
including metadata descriptions that correspond. Also the field study points examined in
varied scientific publications can be shown. These mechanisms help anyone interested to get
a solid view about the environmental information resources available from this region.


The Ministry of Environment has established a long-term inventory program to map the
underwater marine environment of the entire Finnish coast. This work was initiated a few
years ago by a piloting period that involved also the design of distinct data management and
presentation solutions. The UTU-CGG participated these activities by implementing a web
map service to facilitate data handling and for the showing the final inventory results
(Suominen & Kalliola 2004). As the focus is national and very topical, the service was
designated to show only a minimum amount of standard map themes, whilst the service’s
primary focus is in the marine and coastal inventories.

The users may see inventory point locations and find metadata about the performed
inventories from a MySQL database that has a dynamic link to the map viewer. Another tool
to contribute the inventories, there is a web interface for the inclusion of new inventory data.
This process involves the filling in of a metadata description form, which has coordinate
information as a mandatory field. The system administrator has first to accept the new data
records before their appearance in the service. Additionally, raw data can be sent to the
system using a tool to generate transfer files, and these data will appear in the public service
after the administrator has approved their quality. By these tools, the service supports the
coastal inventories, and anyone interested can check their progress in form of accumulating
metadata and mapped locations.
Figure 2. A view that shows the locations of marine and coastal field study points within the
Lounaispaikka Map Service ( Data query operations allow seeing
metadata about any of these study points and the type of inventories conducted in them.


As part of the EU Life Environment funded ENVIFACILITATE project, we participated the
experimentation of an international map viewer to support the ICZM process in an
international context. The service (Figure 3) covered the coastal areas of Finland, Estonia and
Latvia, which constitute most of the NW Baltic coastal region. According to our vision,
spatial data extending across the country borders would help to focus orientation from
national details to the sea area as a whole (Toivonen & Kalliola 2006).

The working out of this basically simple service involved quite some challenges in terms of
collaboration, data content and technical implementation. The international project team
started its work by preparing a list of the data types that the service should provide for the
users. For this purpose, diverse documentation about the ICZM process and its indicators was
used as a reference. After having the “wish list” prepared, the attention was shifted to the
available data resources. Any theme, sufficiently harmonised data should be available from
all the three countries. This work phase turned out to be difficult, as numerous data had to be
discarded from the original lists due to their hard access or lack in some of the target
countries. International combined data resources such as those provided by the European
Environment Agency (, Helcom ( or the
Baltic GIS data portal ( were useful data sources, but even in the data
obtained from them, national borders were sometimes unnatural.

Figure 3. Opening page of the ICZM Map Viewer that presents coastal spatial data from
Finland, Estonia and Latvia (


Our experiences underpin that the concept of “coastal SDI” is a versatile one. In its simplest
form, it may relate to a single institute’s or research groups internal data resources and the
policies governing their development. A coastal SDI may be also a stand-alone thematic
framework of diverse collaborating institutions, such as the portal supporting the coastal
inventories or the ICZM Map Viewer that serves mainly coastal awareness issues. Coastal
matters may also appear within some broader-scoped SDI efforts, like in the case of
implementing coastal research data within the Lounaispaikka framework in SW Finland. The
geographical area addressed by a given endeavour may also range from local to international,
and only in rare cases a coastal SDI should be isolated from other data infrastructure efforts

The SDI building process as such involves diverse consecutive phases, each with their unique
strategic needs and technical specifications. To a high degree, it is a social procedure to bring
together people and institutions working with geographical information in the same areas.
This implies that common visions, goals, rules and commitments are established with
perspective of long lasting collaboration. Thereafter the attention can shift to define the
details of a coastal data infrastructure. It may be just a data recovery and download
framework, or it may also involve diverse network actions and the production of public
spatial data services. Only after these conditions are agreed, the technical implementation
may proceed. Even in this phase of the work, data quality and availability issues pose
numerous thematic and spatial coverage details that require continued negotiations. The
technical solutions to apply constitute a new issue to address, but their importance increases
only after the previous work phases have reached until the needed level of maturity. Finally,
the overall performance of a service and its user responses require patient experimentation
and continuous monitoring of service operation.

In short, any SDI building effort unavoidably involves the participation of many types of
professionals, people working in different levels in their respective organizations, good
coordination and technical performance. It is important to realise that the coastal SDI
building should root on known user needs rather than just the developer’s intuition about
them. To be truly professional, good design and implementation are required in all phases of
work. These conditions met, the ICZM and related processes will get a solid information
basis to build on.


Nurmi, L. & Kalliola, R. (2004), Arranging GI cooperation and environmental data in south
western Finland, Proceedings of the Littoral 2004 Conference. Aberdeen 19.-22.9.2004. pp.

Suominen, T., Kalliola, R. & Laihonen, P. (2004), Sharing coastal research metadata via the
Internet – Finnish solution, Proceedings of the Littoral 2004 Conference, Aberdeen 19.–
22.9.2004. 792–793.

Toivonen, T. & Kalliola, R. (2006), Building networks and services for geographical
information. Lessons learnt in ENVIFACILITATE, UTU-LCC Publications 12, 1-50.

Tolvanen, H. and Kalliola, R. (submitted manuscript), Structured approach to geographical
information in coastal research and management.

Jun Wang Jun Wang Dr
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