With location data entering the mainstream, OGC’s community of location experts is collaborating on a new family of web developer-friendly APIs to support a future geared towards data integration and innovation, says Nadine Alameh
In the 25+ years since the OGC was founded, we’ve seen geospatial move from a niche application to become part of broader IT and consumer tech. With vast amounts of data now being collected every second of every day by countless different sensors – from smartphones to satellites – the value of location data is now well recognised outside the traditional boundaries of the geospatial industry: location data has gone mainstream.
The widespread desire for ‘location everything’ is largely due to location’s ability to function as the organising principle that unifies heterogeneous data. Data integration now sits at the heart of the decision-making, analysis and prediction activities that help us make sense of our world. A well understood cornerstone of our field is that combining data points concerning a specific location – often collected by unrelated parties – can unlock new insights about the places we live. However, while location allows us to contextualise diverse data, the ability to seamlessly integrate it for analysis requires standards.
Our thirst for data integration has, in recent years, led to a proliferation of location-related data being published to the web via APIs by a broad spectrum of data collectors and providers.
While increased data availability is a good thing, unfortunately, there is little-to-no standardisation behind these APIs. This has resulted in difficulties when developers require multiple APIs to access and integrate data from different sources, as each API has to be studied and understood before it can be used. This wastes time and resources, and causes unnecessary headaches for developers.
Standards, by their very nature, seek to provide consistency between datasets, applications, and endpoints so that disparate data providers and consumers can interoperate – and their data integrate – quickly and seamlessly. However, the pace of technological change, including the preferred methods behind accessing and working with data, has of late accelerated ahead of standards development.
So, while standards have a requirement to provide stability, they also need to evolve in step with shifting technologies, practices, and communities, or else they’re doomed to lag behind the market.
This is a key concept in the way OGC is evolving its approach to developing standards that can support the growing thirst for location information integration from an expanding user base.
As part of OGC’s evolving approach to standards development, the OGC community has for the past few years been developing a wholly new ‘OGC API’ family of web service standards that are modular, extensible and aligned with modern development practices.
The development of the OGC APIs builds off of our quarter-century of expertise in location information as well as the success and proliferation of our popular OGC Web Service (OWS) standards – WMS (Web Map Service), WFS (Web Feature Service), WCS (Web Coverage Service), and WMTS (Web Map Tile Service) – the functionality of which the initial OGC APIs will duplicate.
The new OGC APIs are based on the OpenAPI Specification (OAS) – a broadly adopted industry standard for describing modern APIs. APIs built using OAS provide an interface that enables humans and computers to easily discover and understand the capabilities of a service without having to refer to external documentation or guesswork, greatly improving the accessibility of location data.
A data service provider using OGC APIs can pick and choose the resources it wants to provide in its service, including maps, tiles, features and processes. This simplifies the developers’ code base, as they can just “bolt on” to the common core any extra functionality as it’s required – for instance, if they start offering 3D Tiles in their service. This modularity also creates consistency between different data services and resources, making it quick and easy for, say, a data consumer to integrate a new data source or resource type into an existing decision-support application.
Being extensible, the OGC API standards allow new functionality to be added to a standard without breaking existing compatibility. This is especially important because location data allows the integration of just about anything, so it’s hard to imagine, let alone anticipate, all the possible uses when designing future-proof standards. The extensibility of OGC APIs significantly increases the likelihood that the standards will remain usable, useful, and compatible well into an unpredictable future.
Through the OGC APIs, the OGC community is modernising how location information can be integrated: by any developer, with any other type of information, and into any type of application.
Standards development has always been a collaborative process. However, with the OGC APIs, there’s now added pressure to standardise for a fast-paced technology environment before the continued proliferation of custom APIs all but guarantees serious interoperability bottlenecks. Because of this urgency, the OGC community is putting in extra effort to complement our existing consensus-based development process with ongoing engagement with a wide swathe of the user community outside of the OGC membership, making sure that every OGC API is well-suited to best serve the developer community for years to come.
One method of community engagement is through OGC Sprints, which have lately become an integral part of OGC’s standards development process. OGC Sprints are public, open, collaborative coding events designed to “stress test” draft specifications through rapid application programming with minimal process and organisation constraints. Issues raised during OGC Sprints are documented on GitHub and fed back into the standards development process, ensuring that all new OGC standards are as developer-friendly, usable, and mature as possible before release.
OGC is evolving to keep pace with technological innovation by modernising its standards and evolving its own processes. For more than 25 years, the OGC community has been made up of the global “experts in location”. With location now a mainstream concept, it’s time for our community to help other domains make the most of location by shaping the next generation of location standards that will simplify access to, and increase the usability of, location information across the web – powering the decision-making, analysis, and prediction activities of the next 25+ years.
Nadine Alameh is CEO of the Open Geospatial Consortium (www.ogc.org)