In its research activity IREA produces an amount of data related to geographic areas that are observed through time: from snow cover to the extension of glaciers on Alps, from pollution in pre-Alpine lakes to burned areas in Italian natural parks. Such geographic information is often the result of research projects performed in collaboration with organisations responsible for land management (public administrations, government departments, local environmental agencies, etc.), for which it represent an unavoidable support. Nevertheless it could be useful also for other stakeholders (students and researchers, organisations of environmental preservation and protection, companies, media, and plain citizens), who either do not know its existence or cannot access it. This way, the potential impact of researches themselves is narrowed. For this reason, since some years IREA is engaged in implementing and testing up-to-date software tools to spread to a wider users' arena the spatial data produced within its researches.
It's Europe that is pushing forward this activity: European Commission is promoting the development of actions and tools to both let emerge the availability of geographic data produced in Europe and ease their access/exchange: this is the goal of the European Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI). Like an efficient road network let people and goods travel all over the continent using easily accessible roads and observing common driving rules, the creation of an European SDI aims at enabling geographic data diffusion and exploitation. In an SDI, data coming from heterogeneous sources, could be searched and their access is not prevented by hurdles (either technological or not). It's enough to consider the different file formats (textual documents, maps, images, etc.) of data related to a given geographic area, or the various computer platforms where they are available to appreciate SDI advantages for users.
By the publication of the Directive INSPIRE (2007/2/EC, March 14th, 2007) of the European Parliament and Council, the building of the European SDI is now in an operational phase. A huge investment effort has also been undertaken by European Commission.
Following the Directive, therefore, researchers of IREA are working to the creation of a thematic SDI within two Projects co-funded by the European Commission, i.e. AWARE (http://www.aware-eu.info) and IDE Univers (http://www.ideunivers.eu), which produce a great quantity of data with geographic reference.
The infrastructure has been implemented by free software, in different operation environments (Linux and MS Windows) to test its behaviour in heterogeneous systems. Created Web services follow OGC (Open Geospatial Consortium) standards and allow different functions. First of all a Web Catalog Service (CSW) to explore available data by querying their metadata (i.e. information describing the data); at present they are about 850. This way it is possible to know, by example, all data produced by IREA in 2007 referred to Lombardia. Web Map Services (WMS) and Web Feature Services (WFS) let visualise/analyse images and maps produced in the various researches; this data collection mainly refers to Northern Italy. IREA SDI contains also some Web Processing Services (WPS) to elaborate spatial data, in particular a module to evaluate river runoff from both meteorological data and maps of snow cover (figure 1).
All above services can be accessed through the Internet and users can exploit them by a geoportal offered by IREA online facilities (http://geoportal.irea.cnr.it:8080/geoportal/local_it.jsp) (figure 2). However, following infrastructure philosophy, any access point with the same standard rules can access IREA services as well: so burned area maps of Italian Parks can be perfectly overlaid to the maps visualised in the Portale Cartografico Nazionale of the Italian Ministry of Environment; maps of the extension of glaciers can be seen through the Map client of the Joint Research Center in Ispra; the service that evaluates water runoff in a mountain basin can be feed with maps hosted by different SDIs of other providers in Europe.
We are dealing with a real change of perspective, opening to a wider space of data and services: it could have great influence on today practices of geographic data management (which are now a little close-minded). Some drawbacks still exist, in particular as far as implementation effort required. The future success of INSPIRE is linked to the development of more mature implementation and maintenance tools, supported by test and evaluation actions. In this framework, IREA SDI contribution is precious, since it aims at spreading experience and know-how to other research Institutes, Universities, public and private bodies interested in creating SDIs following INSPIRE.