Industry Standards Pertaining to GIS Data in NGCS Need Strengthening — Here’s What to Do in the Meantime
Posted on April 24, 2023 by Robert Horne
When it comes to technology implementations in the public-safety/justice ecosystem, industry standards are the guiding light. However, when they’re written ambiguously, standards are subject to broad interpretation. As a result, their effectiveness can be compromised, and they sometimes become ineffective.
The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) i3 standard has been adopted widely as the path for providing NG911 service and seems to work well for emergency services Internet Protocol networks (ESInets), which enable the delivery of 911 calls to emergency communications centers (ECCs) in the NG911 environment. However, the geospatially enabled functional elements of next-generation core services (NGCS) that enable the handling of 911 calls in the NG911 environment need improvement to establish more resilient and seamless data interoperability.
The portion of the i3 standard pertaining to NGCS — particularly as it relates to the GIS data supply chain — leaves room for interpretation. The effectiveness of standards depends upon clearly and succinctly writing them in a manner that aligns implementation on a single decipherment. When standards are ambiguous, consistency and even interoperability of GIS data across ESInets are compromised.
This ambiguity has led to multiple interpretations of the standard, which has allowed NGCS providers to determine the process for converting GIS data used in the NG911 environment. The unintended consequence is flexibility in how compliance with the NENA i3 standard is measured. The technical back end of the NGCS implementation at clients served by MCP varies widely. The flexibility in the standards places interoperability of GIS data found within neighboring ESInets at risk.
Speaking of success metrics, service providers develop them partly to serve their own interests, which is to demonstrate that their output complies with the standard. Data, in this case reported metrics, can be manipulated to support any desired outcome. This underscores the importance for concise and consistent requirements to ensure that public-safety agencies can understand and compare capabilities of NGCS providers on a level playing field. NGCS providers aren’t doing anything wrong, but given the current ambiguity of the standards the picture is muddied.
The result of all this has been inconsistency and, in some cases, the creation of errors when GIS data is provisioned through the spatial interface, which is the gateway to the functional elements in the NG911 system.
Such errors eventually will create a breakdown in the emergency call-delivery workflow, which is a significant problem. Over the years, MCP has helped clients identify and correct the thousands of errors that exist in every GIS database. These errors usually are simple. For example, a street name might be misspelled, a roadway might be designated as a “lane” when it really is an “avenue,” or the abbreviation “AV” was used when it should have been “AVE.” In such cases, every affected address will show as an error, and the databases won’t match. In fact, a validation test of GIS data from several of MCP’s clients — using the declared metrics of their respective NGCS provider — revealed several frightening facts:
- Of the datasets tested, 100 percent had been manipulated in some manner by the NGCS provider, which should not occur
- Nearly 30 percent of the GIS features loaded into the NGCS contained errors, such as missing or inconsistent attributes
Further, the development of GIS data in the local state plane coordinate system and performing datum transformation — sometimes multiple transformations — before loading the GIS data into the NGCS causes small shifts in the data accuracy, which are compounded with each iteration. MCP always advises its clients to develop public safety answering point (PSAP) and provisioning boundaries in cooperation with every neighboring jurisdiction. More than once our clients have followed that advice only to find that the polygons provisioned by the NGCS provider shifted and no longer coincided with neighboring polygon boundaries. It is vital that all errors be found and corrected regardless of their complexity or severity — a process that takes a lot of time, effort, and expertise. These errors highlight the critical need for standards that define specific data elements and schema with clear, concise, and consistent structure. Consequently, MCP encourages all standards-development bodies to evaluate and promote improvement to lead the industry to greater levels of interoperability.
Another vitally important need is to ensure that no overlaps or gaps exist between adjacent jurisdictions. If an emergency call is placed in an overlap or gap area, the conflicting or absence of data associated with that call will result in the call being default-routed in the NG911 system. When that happens, it is likely that the answering ECC will not be the correct ECC, requiring that the call be transferred, a process that usually takes seconds but can take minutes — which is an enormous amount of time when lives are on the line. Avoiding overlaps and gaps is much more difficult to achieve when an NGCS service provider on one side of the border is using a process and metrics that are different from those used by a service provider on the other side. As more NG911 deployments are added, the critical need for clear, concise, and consistent standards definitions exponentially increases.
So, what should you do about this? The first step is engaging with standards-development organizations and insisting on improvements pertaining to the geospatial components of NGCS, with the use of “must” and “shall” versus “should” and “may” in the language. The second is to take an active role and ensure that service providers interpret the standard correctly and in your best interests, not theirs. Because there are no “standards police,” the customers – ECCs, state 911 boards, and GIS and 911 organizations – must hold service providers accountable for adhering to the spirit of the standard and not just the letter. The time to do this is when the contract with the service provider is being written — afterward makes accountability exceedingly difficult if not impossible to achieve.
We have a robust team of NG911 subject-matter experts who understand the complex math behind datum transformations, the nuances of geospatial database population, and the intricacies of next-generation public safety GIS. We are eager to help — please reach out.
Robert Horne is MCP’s network/911 technology domain lead and a certified emergency number professional (ENP). Email him at RobertHorne@MissionCriticalPartners.com.
Topics: Geographic Information Systems