Information Infrastructure

Governments around the world are poised to unleash untold billions of dollars in spending on infrastructure, in stimulus packages that hope to cushion the landing we are currently plummeting towards. Ron Lake posits that the initiatives will require a meta-investment, that

We are going to need to invest in infrastructure (information infrastructure) for infrastructure!

It is probably not a good sign that I, a professional technologist, am chilled to the bone by the prospect. Information infrastructure historically has an obsolescence period that does not stack up well against physical infrastructure. Bridges last fifty, a hundred, sometimes a thousand, years. Government IT is planned for replacement in a decade, and occasionally pushed out as far as two decades in oddball cases.

It got me trying to think about the government IT investments that have shown longevity and been repeatedly leveraged by the economy over the years. And the two obvious ones seem to be data and open source software. The topographic mapping done by the US government and published by the USGS has been used and re-used so many times in so many contexts, the investment has been repaid many many times over. Same thing with the TIGER data. Investing in very core data sets and making them freely available seems to generate knock-on economic effects for years.

The same thing has been happening with investment in core geographic software libraries. The Proj4 reprojection library had its genesis at the USGS, and has been integrated into many many pieces of software, both open and proprietary. The JTS/NTS/GEOS geometry library (genesis in Canadian government funding) now lives inside many open and proprietary software packages.

The difficulty is perhaps in distinguishing what pieces of data and software are “core” and can get maximum leverage and re-use over time, and are therefore worth “investing” in. It’s not as obvious as in physical infrastructure what pieces of software and data are “roads” and which ones are “trucks”.