WGIC: Congratulations on being nominated as the Chair of the Policy Development and Advocacy Committee of the World Geospatial Industry Council (WGIC). What prompted you to take up this role?
Sharma: When I was offered the opportunity to chair the Policy Committee, I was already familiar with the members’ tireless efforts toward achieving the WGIC’s goals and objectives. Personally, I was quite aligned with these goals. Moreover, the familiarity and knowledge of their dedication motivated me to accept the role.
One of the first things my graduate school advisor told me was to take the opportunity, whenever possible, to stand on the shoulders of giants or, at the very least, be in their presence. For this reason, being a part of this committee is so valuable to me. The wealth of knowledge and skills the committee members bring to the table provides an excellent opportunity to learn and grow while simultaneously furthering the mission of WGIC.
WGIC: What are the objectives of the committee? How are these aligned with the mission statement and objectives of WGIC?
Sharma: I will start by defining the three key objectives of WGIC – strengthening the contributions of the geospatial industry to society and the global economy, advancing global policy matters relevant to the geospatial industry, and creating business opportunities for its members.
The Policy Development and Advocacy Committee implements one of these objectives – advancing global policy matters relevant to the geospatial sector. That is how and why our committee exists and is perfectly aligned with the overall objectives of WGIC.
WGIC: In the last four years of WGIC’s existence, what are some of the accomplishments of the Policy Committee?
Sharma: What is interesting about the committee is that, while it is focused on policy matters, it also pursues several topical issues. For example, when the committee was launched, open data, volunteered geographic information, and the impact of augmented reality were topics of intense discussion. The committee realized that since geospatial information has become ubiquitous, every device can tell you its location and, consequently, your location as well. It then became imperative to understand its impact on personal privacy.
Our discussions and research around personal privacy gave birth to the Policy Imperatives for a Data Economy report back in 2019. This report had a significant impact because governments began to seriously contemplate data privacy and related issues around the same time. That’s when the committee realized the impact, the scope, and the contributions that WGIC could make through the efforts of this committee.
The next report, titled “Geospatial Information and Privacy: Policy Perspectives and Imperatives for the Geospatial Industry,” dived deeper into the privacy issues and policy imperatives. Additionally, it explored the increasing trend of automated utilization of geospatial data through such technologies as Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). However, what the committee felt was missing in AI and ML was the role of connectedness. What’s the role of the neighborhood? This is an important question because the way things are connected largely depends on one’s location. Thus, the next topic the committee took up in the following year was the applications of geospatial AI and ML.
The committee developed a report titled “Geospatial AI/ML (GeoAI) Applications and Policies – A Global Perspective.” Two things from this report had a huge impact. One, people didn’t realize that location or how one aggregates information alters the results. You may get different results when you aggregate at a census block level and at a zip code level. The committee highlighted the significance of evaluating the impact of these applications and ensuring accountability and the ability to audit and trace the decision-making process.
The issues around privacy arose due to the widespread deployment of sensors, whose intended use was unclear. Are they being used for managing things such as traffic, allocation of resources, or something else? That’s when we started looking at spatial digital twins because we noticed that organizations create digital twins of physical locations and assets to allocate resources and manage them effectively. If a city, for example, wants to manage traffic or respond to flash floods or citizen complaints about potholes, it needs relevant data to allocate the requisite resources. It also needs information on where these assets are and how they are connected. The Digital Twins report was a natural outcome of this thought process and resulted in numerous discussions among committee members at various conferences and forums, including GEO WEEK, INTERGEO, and UN-GGIM (United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management).
WGIC: How is the work of the Policy Committee impacting and advancing the geospatial agenda across countries?
Sharma: I briefly mentioned our participation in major industry events like GEO WEEK, INTERGEO, and COP27 and being invited to join the UN-GGIM forum. These outreach activities have a significant impact and advance the agenda of the field.
Last year, we participated in COP27 in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt, and created awareness about the significance of geospatial data and technologies in climate action. We also have plans to attend COP28, where we will talk about geospatial data and the policy impact of digital twins, for instance. We will also talk about the use of geospatial data in running state and local governments and planning sustainable development in both built and natural environments.
We have found that governments of developing countries use geospatial data and technology as important tools that, say, governments in North America or Europe or in other developed countries have embraced with their geospatial infrastructure and achieved development goals. They served as valuable templates/case studies for countries that are in the early stages of planning, providing them with a solid foundation to build on. That has been a significant benefit. The Policy Committee’s assistance in advancing the agenda has led to the adoption of best practices by governments, which in turn is promoting industry growth in these countries.
WGIC: How does the Policy Committee work with all WGIC members, governments, and the larger geospatial ecosystem to achieve its goals?
Sharma: The committee is open to all WGIC members. All members get the opportunity to review, comment, and contribute to the entire body of work done by the committee, and indeed many of them participate quite actively. When we develop a report, we give members an opportunity to share their inputs on the topic.
Please note this activity is not limited to the members alone. We also reach out to other organizations, such as the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC). We reach out to them because they are focused on standardization and information exchange, and that, especially in the case of spatial digital twins, is a key imperative.
Similarly, when presenting at industry events, we engage with government agencies from various regions, including North America, Africa, Europe, the United States, and Asia Pacific. Our discussions are productive, and we emphasize collaboration, outreach, and follow-up, which often lead to business and collaborative opportunities.
WGIC: It appears the committee decided to focus on the ‘metaverse’ in 2023. Could you please elaborate on the rationale for this choice?
Sharma: Last year, our focus on spatial digital twins generated significant discussions at various fora and generated much interest in the topic in the larger geospatial ecosystem. As a result, even as the WGIC Board decided to double down efforts on the topic of climate change, it wanted the committee to further explore spatial digital twins and their potential role in addressing climate change, which led to the idea of the metaverse.
Metaverse is not just the built environment. It is the full environment that we live and work in. It includes all of the natural resources, not just cities, but oceans, forests, and everything else. The role of location and its sheer timeliness makes it even more important. There has been a lot of discussion around the metaverse, with some companies considering it a crucial technology of the future and even changing their names to reflect this belief. It is discussed intensely in gaming and social network domains. We soon realized that just as in the case of AI and ML, the role of location of metaverse and its impact on people and policy will soon be of great importance. We felt there is an imminent need for a conversation about the role of geospatial data, spatial analysis and reasoning in metaverse. The geospatial aspect of the metaverse has been missing from discussions, making the timely discourse on this topic crucial.
WGIC: What are the committee’s plans in terms of research, outreach, collaboration, etc. on this topic in 2023?
Sharma: We plan to conduct commissioned research on metaverse in 2023. We will ensure to be representative of the community we serve and will incorporate inputs and feedback from the academia, governments, multilateral and international agencies we collaborate with. For instance, we will seek input from the US Congress, which has commissioned a report on metaverse.
Once the report is ready, we will participate in different industry events, where stakeholders including private enterprise, policymakers and governments gather, to help socialize the contents and create awareness. Additionally, we will have a strong social media presence, discussing our findings through various WGIC member channels.
WGIC: In addition to metaverse, what are some of the themes and issues the committee is championing this year?
Sharma: Climate change is one of the issues that we will be focusing on. While we will be releasing the metaverse report later this year, our overarching efforts are on climate change, sustainable development, sustainable resource management and the role of the geospatial ecosystem in these. The geospatial ecosystem, including products, practitioners, services, solutions, and policies play a crucial role in managing and mitigating these challenges, and we will explore strategies to take effective climate action.