Alessandro Annoni

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National Geographic Information Policies in Europe: An Overview
Alessandro Annoni 1

European Commission - Joint Research Centre

Space Applications Institute


The paper summarises the key findings of a workshop held on data policies jointly organised by EUROGI, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), and the General Directorate "Information Society" of the European Commission (EC) in November 1999. The primary objective of this workshop was to start putting together a picture of what is happening in different European countries at the present time with respect to data policies in general, and Geographic Information policy in particular. The main task of the workshop was therefore to identify similarities and differences in data policy initiatives taking place across Europe, and to help the EC in understanding how to formulate a European Policy compliant with on going and emerging National initiatives. A further objective was to highlight gaps in current knowledge where additional information is required, and suggest ways in which these gaps could be filled.


The mission of the JRC is: "to provide customer-driven scientific and technical support for the conception, development, implementation and monitoring of EU policies. As a service of the European Commission, the JRC functions as a reference centre of science and technology for the Union. Close to the policy-making process, it serves the common interest of the Member States, while being independent of special interests, whether private or national"(

In its Fifth Framework Programme for Research and Development, the JRC has defined and is now implementing a project called “GI/GIS: Harmonisation and Interoperability”, the objectives of which support the policy, data related, and technical initiatives necessary for the integrated assessment of EU policies. Preparatory work for European GI Policy development can be performed within the scope of this project (

The GI activities of JRC are thus complementary to those of EUROGI, the European Umbrella Organisation for GI ( JRC is mainly addressing EC needs, acting under specific request of its Services, while EUROGI is focusing on integrating national, European and global initiatives relating to GI policies and infrastructures. Both stand to benefit if synergies are exploited. Hence the interest from both sides for close co-operation recently formalised through a Memorandum of Understanding. In this way both organisations intend to maximise the impact of their endeavours and contribute more effectively to the development of a truly pan-European GI policy.
With these considerations in mind, a workshop on data policies was the first event co-organised by the JRC and EUROGI, giving a clear indication of the priority attached by both to this topic.

The paper is divided into three parts. The first provides the background to the increasing interest in data policy at the European level. Major policy initiatives reviewed include the Information Society, GI2000, and the Green Paper on Public Sector Information. The second part of the paper reviews the experiences of the 12 European countries attending the workshop (Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the UK) in respect to the development of data policies in general and geographic information policies more specifically. The third part of the paper summarises the findings and puts forward suggestions for further activities.

European GI Policy Development

A communication from the Commission to the Council and Parliament was drafted in 1996 to launch the debate on the development of a policy framework for GI at the European level (GI2000). The GI2000 document has been the subject of numerous consultation meetings over recent years with interested parties both within and outside the Commission. It suggested action under the headings: Leadership & Vision, European GI Infrastructure, Realising the Potential and Global Rules. First it proposed to set up a high level working party composed of Commission services and the actors in industry, government and users to develop consensus and to exert the leadership required to drive development forward. EUROGI, their national members, National Mapping Agencies, and research organisations are all strongly in favour of GI2000 although they have different ideas on concrete actions. On the other hand industry support has, unfortunately, not been quite so forthcoming. Mainly for this reason the previous Commission did not adopt this communication.
The importance of developing a European policy for GI has however been reaffirmed during the discussions that have followed the publication in January 1999 of the Green Paper on Public Sector Information. In fact by the deadline for comments on 1st June a total of 180 reactions had been received, of which 40 were from the GI community (typically, actors suggested to the EU to develop an active policy for GI; for instance, to harmonise pricing policies based on marginal cost and overcome the fragmented property rights system across Europe). Early in the year 2000 the Commission intends to issue a follow up communication to the Green Paper summarising the reactions and outlining actions that could be taken at a European level. Current ideas include the setting up of a high level working party as an open consensus-building forum. Initiatives regarding exploitation of public sector information, metadata or a EU data policy may also be possible.
These initiatives will be integrated in the broader context of “eEurope - An Information Society for All" which is a high-level political initiative launched in December 1999 ( eEurope proposes ambitious targets to bring the benefits of the Information Society within reach of all Europeans. It identifies ten priority areas to bring Internet access to the reach of all, and develop key applications in the fields of education, health, transport, and access to government information. It is in the context of the chapter on “Government on-line” that actions related to public sector information, including GI, will be taken forward.
There are several other initiatives that need to be considered in relation to the development of a policy framework for GI in Europe and show the increasing awareness in the EC about the role of GI.


An Inter-service Committee for GI (COGI) has been established within the EC. Its first meeting on the 16th November, 1999 was chaired by the Director General of EUROSTAT, giving a measure of the level of support of this initiative. The proposed mandate of this group, to be reviewed on a yearly basis, is to co-ordinate the use of GI within the Commission services and improve the efficiency and cost effectiveness of European policy monitoring that require a spatial analysis of the European territory. This will be done by developing strategies to:

  • Improve the availability of GI within the EC services mainly by proposing joint acquisition of basic GI complying with common specifications and needs,

  • Improve the level of awareness amongst middle and higher management within the EC of the power of this technology and how it can contribute to the excellence and increased efficiency of European public service,

  • Project a coherent image of the EC’s GI activities to the outside world,

  • Develop a data policy applicable to all EC services to better share existing in-house GI and facilitate its dissemination to outside users at the lowest possible price thereby stimulating the market for value added services building on this data,

  • Reduce duplication of effort through better co-ordination between individual activities,

  • Exchange best practice and experience between departments and thereby contribute to extending and maintaining an in-house expertise and know-how on GI/GIS.

The group will invite participation from the other European institutions and agencies to ensure the widest possible application of its work and will, as necessary, also consult with external organisations in the Member States, be they key producers or users of European GI.

The establishment of COGI is a very important development with potential benefits for the GI sector throughout Europe. A 1997 study on GI-POLICY funded by DGXIII clearly indicated the extent to which developing a clear policy within the Commission, which still is the major user of pan-European GI, was a pre-requisite for discussing the implementation of European-wide GI policies with member states and national organisations.

GI and other EU policies

Geographic Information is now recognized as key information for spatial and territorial analysis for different territorial levels, for sectoral or integrated policies:

  • CAP - Common Agricultural Policy

Environmental aspects are more and more taken into account for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. A high-level working group on Agri-Environment Indicators was set up with participation of several Services of the European Commission (DG AGRI, EUROSTAT, DG ENV, DG SANCO, DG TREN, JRC) and the EEA aiming to prepare a communication to the Council and to the Parliament to integrate spatial indicators to monitor policies.

  • ICZM - Integrated Coastal Zone Management

Our coastal zones are facing serious problems of habitat destruction, water contamination, coastal erosion and resource depletion. They also suffer from serious socio-economic and cultural problems. For these reasons a European strategy is needed to promote a collaborative approach to planning and management of the coastal zones. A new Communication is under preparation in which it is foreseen that the EU will continue to promote the development of useful knowledge and information about the coastal zone from both natural and social sciences. The EC will assist in developing datasets and producing knowledge for use at the European level. It will also ensure that EU funded research related to the coastal zone produces information and knowledge with a content, format and timeliness suitable to the needs of the end users at all levels.

  • ESDP - European Spatial Development Perspective

    The ESDP, whose first official draft was approved in June 1997 by the EU ministers of spatial planning in Noordwijk in the Netherlands, is the result of four years of hard work undertaken by the member-states and the EC (mainly DG Regional Policies) since 1993. The objectives of the ESDP can be summarized freely as the intention to use a spatial framework for co-ordinating a broad number of policies concerning the continent, all of which have an impact on the condition and use of the European territory. In this sense, the ESDP breaks new ground, as its approach is trans-sectoral and integrating, but also proactive. This should be contrasted to the traditional physical planning approach – still prevalent in many parts of Europe – which tends to be reactive and regulatory, and looks at the spatial dimension mainly on physical and technical terms.

  • Environmental Policies

NATURA 2000 is a European network of areas, proposed under the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive, where human activity must be compatible with the conservation of sites of natural importance. Contrary to a widely held belief in rural areas, the idea behind the NATURA 2000 network is not to set up full nature reserves or freeze all human activity on the proposed sites. Apart from a few exceptions, NATURA 2000 sites are managed through productive activity. The development of the GIS for NATURA 2000 is part of the activities carried out by the JRC under the agreement between DG JRC and DG Environment. The components of this system will play two key roles – firstly in providing a mechanism for harmonising and validating incoming data from the Member States, each of which has different approaches, and secondly to provide analytical tools to model, monitor, visualise and publish data relating to the NATURA 2000 sites. It is the first example of a GIS adopted in the EC to carry out operational work.

    A new advisory group on Spatial Analysis was set up as a follow-up action of the European Environment Agency (EEA) review in 1999 on the land cover topic. The proposed action plan on spatial analysis should be considered as a joint common approach shared by the participating institutes of the group, and should be characterised by a pragmatic approach. It should be based on the common needs to support cross-cutting policy areas where the spatial dimension will play a key role (the proposed Water Framework directive, nature conservation and biodiversity, the forthcoming implementation of the ESDP action programme, etc.).

EC funded projects

In addition to the initiatives highlighted above, there are also other EC funded projects that contribute towards the goal of developing a GI policy framework across Europe. They include:

  • ETeMII – An accompanying measure to support the establishment of a European Territorial Management Information Infrastructure. The objective of this project is to help develop a consensus on some of the most important technical issues that are at the base of a European Information Infrastructure, namely reference data, and data access policies, interoperability and standards, and metadata (

  • The PANEL-GI (INCO-COPERNICUS) project aims to involve partners from the Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) in a Pan European GI Forum. The network makes an important contribution towards developing an integrated European GI domain and stimulating GI-related business in the CEEC. Its wider goal is to contribute towards the establishment of shared foundations for the Information Society in the CEEC, with particular emphasis in the area of GIS. (

  • ABDS - The Administrative Boundary Database Service for the CEE countries aims to prepare and partially implement on-line delivery of administrative boundary data collected, processed and delivered with defined rules for the data models and products using European and ISO standards. The service will support ongoing data collection actions (e.g. SABE, GISCO) and pan European projects including preparations for the accession of CEE countries to the EU (

  • ESIS (European survey of the information society) - This initiative aims to provide an overview of the situation of the Information Society in central and Eastern Europe, and in the Mediterranean countries. It has built an inventory of projects as well as collected data concerning promotional activities, regulatory developments, alternative networks and key persons and organisations (

  • ERISA - European Regional Information Society Association. This is an initiative by over 30 regional authorities across Europe to establish local agendas and bring forward the implementation of the Information Society at the local level (

Whilst ESIS and ERISA do not have an explicit GI focus, it is clear that they are important initiatives in the wider context of developing a European information society, and hence have a bearing on the issues of data policy and dissemination discussed in this report.

The EC is funding a number of projects related to metadata and GI in different domains. These projects have initiated a joint venture to co-ordinate their work and avoid duplication. Moreover they are converging towards the definition of a core metadata set mindful of the developments of the industry at large. Following are the pointers to the GI metadata projects:

  • CLEAR: Spatial Clearinghouse Saar-Lor-Lux ( (see also for the internet legal desk).

  • ESMI: European Spatial Multimedia Infrastructure (

  • GEIXS: European multilingual metadata service for the geological surveys (,

  • GISEDI: Electronic Trade for Geographic Information (

  • LACLEF: Unlocking GI in the public sector through e-commerce (

  • MADAME: Methods for Access to Data and Metadata in Europe (

National and Regional GI policies Development

A one-day workshop was organised by the JRC and the General Directorate "Information Society" of the EC in partnership with EUROGI. This meeting reflected the effort of the JRC and the Information Society Directorate to give the opportunity to National Organisations (12 countries were represented) in charge of defining National Policies, to know, compare and discuss topics of common interest, and to help the EC in understanding how to formulate a European Policy compliant with on going and emerging National initiatives. The meeting was hosted by RAVI, the Dutch national organisation for GI, on the 15th November 1999 at its offices in Amersfoort.
The primary objective of the workshop [] was to start putting together a picture of what is happening in different European countries at the present time with respect to data policies in general, and GI policy in particular. The main task of the workshop was therefore to identify similarities and differences in data policy initiatives taking place across Europe, and key issues that may need addressing at the supra-national level. A further objective was to highlight gaps in current knowledge where additional information is required, and to suggest ways in which these gaps could be filled. The main focus of the workshop was on the policy frameworks relating to the dissemination and conditions of access to digital data, although such frameworks may not necessarily distinguish between digital and paper-based records.
The presentations made at the workshop can be divided into two groups addressing national/regional data policy initiatives, and European initiatives or projects respectively. In respect to the former, the participants were asked by the organisers to consider the following:

  • Basic facts about the country: e.g. population, area, distribution of administrative responsibilities between central, regional and local government etc.

  • Who are the main providers of GI: e.g. role played by cadastre, national mapping agency, national statistical institute etc.

  • The institutional context of national GI policy: e.g. policies relating to access and dissemination, legal protection etc.

  • Elements of national spatial data infrastructure: e.g. mechanisms for coordinating national policy, provision of core data sets, development of national metadata services, etc.

  • Current burning issues under discussion: e.g. future of national mapping agencies, freedom of information legislation.

The workshop showed that there are numerous differences in the approaches taken in different countries, which reflect their institutional context and maturity of their information market. Moreover, there are also differences in the extent to which GI is perceived as being a key driver, or just a subset of broader data policies:

  • In some cases the GI dimension is very strong (e.g. where National Spatial Data Infrastructures already exist - Portugal, Netherlands, Finland),

  • In others, such as France, GI is recognised as an important element of public sector information,

  • Regional/local dimension is particularly important in some countries (e.g. Germany, Italy, Belgium),

  • Today, users demand much higher data quality and documentation.

However, the workshop indicated that there are also numerous similarities. In particular, the very rapid developments brought about by technology and the Internet, are forcing governments to come to terms with the opportunities and challenges that these developments create.

At the present time, most countries seem to have adopted policies in respect to access to public sector information. These include Data Protection legislation, which gives access to individuals to their personal records, and Freedom of Information legislation, or equivalent, which extend the rights to access a broader set of documents and records. These policies are very helpful, even though they are not uniformly in place, and major differences exist in the practices of implementation. There is however, quite a different set of policies that needs developing in respect to a pro-active dissemination of public sector information.
The differences between access and dissemination policies can be illustrated using France as an example. In this country a legal framework for access to public sector information has been in place since 1978. A cross-sectoral review in 1999 however, makes the case for a policy of active dissemination of public sector information and recommends inter alia:

  • That "essential data", defined as those necessary to all French citizens and residents to exercise their rights, should be accessible free of charge. Such data may include legislative, statistical, and geographic data such as administrative boundaries,

  • That all agencies working for the public sector, i.e. including the utilities and private companies if working on a contract paid by the public sector, have the obligation of disseminating "essential data",

  • That each organisation must submit to the government and to an independent panel a list of the "essential data" it holds already in digital format, and a digitisation plan for that held in analogue format.

As far as "non-essential" data is concerned, the report envisages a two-tier structure, one for agencies like the IGN, and Meteo-France for which data dissemination is mission-critical, and another for the rest of public administration. The former will be allowed to commercialise data directly, while the latter will have to do so through public-private partnerships. In any case, the report recommends that pricing should encourage usage, and be based on volume to reduce charges and maximise opportunities for the private sector [(Mandelkern Report, (see Rapports Officiels)].
The recommendations of this report will strike a very familiar note to those involved in GI policies and infrastructures as what is essentially advocated is the need to define "core data", develop metadata services, and establish a co-ordinating framework. The elements are however extended to include potentially all public sector information and not just GI.
The review of national, and in some cases regional experiences, indicates that disseminating information has major implications in respect to the organisation of work in the public administration, intellectual property, metadata (i.e. the first step in active dissemination is to declare what is available), relationships with the private sector, and pricing.
In respect to pricing, there are significant variations among the countries analysed during the workshop. In some cases there is a distinction between essential data free of charge (i.e. paid for through general taxation), and value added data charged for. In others, a policy has yet to emerge, and individual organisations act independently. Where a policy exists, a general principle that seems to emerge is that whatever the pricing policy, price should not deter use of data but on the contrary should encourage it. Interestingly, the debate about pricing is still open in countries that have a longer tradition of data access policy, and not just in those that are at earlier stages of policy development.


Whilst in the last few years there has been a tendency within the GI community to argue for the development of GI policies and infrastructures, it seems increasingly clear that these cannot be pursued in isolation, but need to be couched in a broader debate about data access and dissemination policies. The forthcoming communication of the EC on Public Sector Information, i.e. the follow-up of the 1999 Green Paper becomes therefore an important opportunity to address many of the issues identified in this paper.
The EC is still the largest single user of Pan-European GI data. It is important that it defines:

  • “Core data” to support its policies (in progress),

  • Regulation to ensure long-term supply of core data,

  • Metadata for data sets created internally and by EC-funded projects (in progress),

  • Co-ordination: HLWP and COGI (partly there),

  • Dissemination: Single portal for GI related activities ( in place) and coherent policy for dissemination to third parties of key layers being created.

In addition the EC should also:

  • Help convergence of national data policies,

  • Continue monitoring, documenting, and disseminating data policy developments occurring at national/regional level in Europe, and in the international arena (e.g. GSDI -,

  • Link GI policy initiatives to the wider debates on data policy (e.g. Green Paper) and other major policy initiatives at the EU level so that a stronger case for European action can be developed.

The broadening of focus from GI to data policy has also major implications for the GI research community, as there seems to be a dearth of research focusing on policy issues, and limited linkages with policy-oriented disciplines in the social sciences. A sustained effort is therefore needed to fill this gap, of which the special track on GI policy in the AGILE conference, and the potential establishment of a special interest group on this topic are important first steps.

1 The opinions expressed in this paper are entirely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the EC

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