Welcome to the Spatial Reserves blog.
The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data was written to provide GIS practitioners and instructors with the essential skills to find, acquire, format, and analyze public domain spatial data. Some of the themes discussed in the book include open data access and spatial law, the importance of metadata, the fee vs. free debate, data and national security, the efficacy of spatial data infrastructures, the impact of cloud computing and the emergence of the GIS-as-a-Service (GaaS) business model. Recent technological innovations have radically altered how both data users and data providers work with spatial information to help address a diverse range of social, economic and environmental issues.
This blog was established to follow up on some of these themes, promote a discussion of the issues raised, and host a copy of the exercises that accompany the book. This story board provides a brief description of the exercises.
We’ve written a number of posts over the last couple of years on crowd sourced data collection initiatives, all of which have been land-based or involved aerial data (for example, UAV Imagery). The TeamSurv project takes crowd sourced data collection out to sea, enlisting the help of mariners to produce better maps and charts of coastal waters, where the amount of detailed survey data in many countries is low. Project participants will either receive a data logger to use with their existing equipment or be able to load data directly from their own navigation systems.
The data collected from a variety of volunteer vessels include bathymetry, surface currents, sea surface temperature and wind data. Once processed the marine GIS data sets are to be made available to any organisation or authority with an interest in hydrographic data (chart publishers, oceanographers and so on). The charts are available to download from the TeamSurv web site in shapefile format, and the site promises that other formats will be supported soon.
Unfortunately the data are not begin made available in the public domain. The conditions of use include the charts are for personal use only and they may not be distributed or reproduced for commercial or non-commercial purposes without written consent. Although this seems contrary to the ethos of crowd sourcing, given the amount of post-collection cleaning and correction the data are subject to, it is perhaps understandable that some restrictions on their use should be imposed. Is it better to have unrestricted access to a lot of data of variable quality, or are some restrictions a price worth paying if the quality of the data can be guaranteed?
Questions such as “How can I obtain geospatial data?” and “How do I know if that data is any good?” are central themes in this blog. One data source that merits attention is the Esri Living Atlas of the World. More than an expanding source of spatial data, it represents the new paradigm of obtaining and using spatial data.
The Living Atlas of the World is a collection of maps and apps on hundreds of topics focused around people, earth, and life. This includes data (1) created by the Esri ArcGIS Content Team, (2) contributed to the online basemaps through crowdsourced participation from the Community Maps program, and (3) authored by Esri partners. Basemaps include oceans, imagery, streets, terrain, and others, and is a mixture of global sets and regional/local sets, depending on who created it. Imagery includes events, basemaps, multispectral, and temporal. Other categories include demographics, lifestyles, landscape, Earth Observations, Urban Systems, Transportation, Boundaries and Places, Historical Maps, and Story Maps.
Navigating the graphics-rich site is quite easy and the metadata exists in an overview set of paragraphs and in a more detailed form as well. A nice touch is the inclusion of person responsible for the curation for each category as well as a short video from each person. Most of the maps and data sets can be opened in the ArcGIS Online map viewer or in ArcGIS Desktop, and in addition, the individual map layers making up the maps can also be accessed. The chief challenge, like with any large data portal, is to determine the most suitable search terms to use in order to obtain the desired data set. One gets the strong sense of the rapid expansion of this portal recently and that it will continue to rapidly evolve.
The Esri Living Atlas of the World represents a new paradigm of serving data for several key reasons. As we indicated in our book, industry is playing an increasingly important role in serving government and other data through their own methods and portals, of which Esri here is a prime example. Second, this portal allows users to immediately begin interacting with the data using cloud-based mapping services; in this case, within ArcGIS Online, but also, with just a click or two, within ArcGIS Desktop. Third, this atlas is not a standalone web page for data access, but rather, the atlas itself is a fundamental part of the ArcGIS platform. If one wanted to save some of the layers in standard vector and raster data sets, one would need to export them through the ArcGIS Desktop package. But if this type of portal is any indication, the need for saving data in a standard format may be quickly becoming “old school.” This may be the case if instead of exporting and importing data, one can use an online atlas and begin using the data for analysis right away.
The Open Data Institute (ODI), founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Prof. Nigel Shadbolt, has been working collaboratively with many partners around the globe to develop a network of open data ‘Nodes‘. Nodes, which aim to bring individuals and organisations together to collaborate and promote the use open data in business, government and education, are split into three levels:
- Country: Independent NGOs building national centres of excellence, working across public and private sectors, NGOs, educational institutions and other Nodes within a country.
- City or Regional: Deliver projects, and can provide training, research, and development. For example, ODI Dubai, ODI Chicago, and ODI North Carolina, ODI Paris, ODI Trento, ODI Brighton, ODI Manchester, ODI Leeds.
- Communications: Promoting global open data case studies. For example ODI Moscow, ODI Buenos Aires and ODI Gothenburg.
Although not a data portal, the ODI provides a variety of resources for those work with open data, including research into how open data is used, how it is published and how to certify open data. Given the current plethora of data sites and portals, not all of which are well thought out and useful as we have commented before on this blog, this invaluable resource of data trends and issues provides many useful references for those working with the various types of open data, including location based data. For example, a recent blog post from ODI North Carolina discussed how important quality is for open data.
It is always helpful for others who are considering working with open data, or who are in the process of collecting and publishing open data, to benefit from the experiences of others. Given the ease with which data can be published online these days, the next challenges are to provide data that are easy to find, well documented, current, accurate and ultimately ….. useful. As Charlie Ewen (UK Met Office) remarked, ‘Digital isn’t done once you have a website’.
In this blog, we have written about the revolution occurring in the remote sensing world, centered on inexpensive and crowdsourced remote sensing. As described in this TED talk from Planet Labs’ Will Marshall, Planet Labs has launched small satellites of the dimensions 10 x 10 x 30 cm, weighing 4 kg, which can take images at 10 times higher resolution than conventional large satellites. Early in 2014, the International Space Station launched 28 of these small satellites. They plan to launch more than 100 that will image the Earth from a single orbital plane as the planet rotates beneath it. Will refers to this system as a “line scanner for the planet.”
While our book and this blog discuss geotechnologies from a technical point of view, we also highlight the societal implications of these innovations. Planet Labs’ work fits in well with these themes, because they are not only technically innovative, but their goal is to democratize remote sensing data. They are asking: “If you had access to imagery for the whole planet on a daily basis, what would you do with it?” Every point on the planet will be imaged every day with their platform.
And while the partnerships and avenues of dissemination data are still being worked out, this and similar efforts in the remote sensing world will surely impact data availability, crowdsourcing, copyright, privacy, decision-making, and other topics important to science, education, and society, in the months and years ahead.
Recently, while at the Applied Geography Conference in Atlanta, I decided to test the spatial accuracy of my smartphone’s GPS in a challenging environment–a rooftop running track. Although located on a roof, the track was surrounded by buildings far taller, and in downtown Atlanta, a location with many other buildings impeding signals from GPS, wi-fi hotspots, and cell phone towers. A further challenge to the GPS positional accuracy was that each lap on the track was only 0.10 miles (0.16 km), and therefore, I would not travel very far across the Earth’s surface.
After an hour of walking, and collecting the track on my smartphone with a fitness app (Runkeeper), I uploaded my track as a GPX file and created a web map of it in ArcGIS Online. As I expected, the track’s position was compromised by the tall buildings–I only had a view of about half the sky during my time on the roof. As you can measure for yourself on the map linked above, the track lines formed a band about 15 meters wide, but interestingly, were more spatially precise along the eastern side of the track, where the signal was better, as you can see in my video that I recorded at the same time.
Also, as I have encountered numerous times in the past, a line about 100 meters long stretches to the north. Rest assured that I did not leap off the building, but rather, the first point that the GPS app laid down as I opened the doors to walk outside was about a block away. Then, as I remained outside, the points became more accurate. When you collect data, the more time you spend on the point you are collecting, typically the more accurate that point is spatially.
Another interesting aspect of this study is that if the basemap is changed to satellite imagery, it appears that the track overlaps the tall building to the west. Try it, using the map link above. However, a closer investigation reveals that this is a result of the orthocorrection that was performed on the imagery; the buildings do not appear from “straight overhead”, but rather, they “fall away” to the east. Turn this into another teachable moment: Images, like maps, are not perfect, but they are very useful. We can learn to manage error and imperfection through critical thinking and through the use of geotechnologies. This is a central topic of our book and of this blog.
To dig deeper into issues of GPS track accuracy, see my related post on errors and teachable moments in collecting data, and on comparing the accuracy of GPS receivers and smartphones and mapping field collected data in ArcGIS Online here and here.
Despite these challenges, overall, I was quite pleased with my track’s spatial accuracy, even more so considering that I had the phone in my pocket most of the time I was walking.
We have written much over the last couple of years about location data privacy concerns and potential harm in publishing too much of our personal location data, however unintentionally. Despite these concerns, having access to aggregate personal location data can reveal patterns in behaviour that may have previously gone unnoticed.
In this short video (8.32 mins), Margaret McKenna (Runkeeper) discusses some of the issues, challenges and opportunities that arise collating and analysing the volumes of personal location tracking data that fitness enthusiasts have been capturing over recent years. The insights derived from the analysis into regional and city-wide exercise patterns and motivations have the potential to make a positive impact on communities.
As we state in our book, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, oftentimes, technological advancement and adoption proceeds at a faster pace than regulations accompanying it. A perfect example is what is probably the hottest technology in remote sensing right now, and that is UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The Internet is becoming rapidly filled with stories and videos of footage from UAVs deployed by aerial survey companies, but even more commonly, operated by the general public. For example, this storymap contains footage of UAV imagery flown over a rocket launch, a cruise ship, and more.
While I as a geographer are fascinated by these images and videos, I am at the same time sensitive to the myriad of privacy and safety issues raised by the operation of UAVs. We are beginning to see laws passed to regulate the operation of UAVs on certain lands, such as the recent policy directive against flying these in national parks in the USA.
Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, said that “We embrace many activities in national parks because they enhance visitor experiences with the iconic natural, historic and cultural landscapes in our care. However, we have serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks, so we are prohibiting their use until we can determine the most appropriate policy that will protect park resources and provide all visitors with a rich experience.” Some parks had already initiated bans after noise and nuisance complaints from park visitors, an incident in which park wildlife were harassed, and park visitor safety concerns. For example, earlier this year, visitors at Grand Canyon National Park gathered for a quiet sunset were interrupted by a loud unmanned aircraft flying back and forth and eventually crashing in the canyon. Volunteers at Zion National Park witnessed an unmanned aircraft disturb a herd of bighorn sheep, reportedly separating adults from young animals.
The policy memorandum directs park superintendents to take a number of steps to exclude unmanned aircraft from national parks. The steps include drafting a written justification for the action, ensuring compliance with applicable laws, and providing public notice of the action. The memorandum does not affect the primary jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration over the National Airspace System.
The policy memorandum is a temporary measure, and it seems like a wise move. Jarvis said the next step will be to propose a Servicewide regulation regarding unmanned aircraft. That process can take considerable time, depending on the complexity of the rule, and includes public notice of the proposed regulation and opportunity for public comment. The National Park Service may use unmanned aircraft for administrative purposes such as search and rescue, fire operations and scientific study. These uses must also be approved by the associate director for Visitor and Resource Protection.
Near the Esri office in Colorado a month ago, I witnessed my first UAV flight where I did not know who was operating the vehicle. I’m sure we will look back in years to come and realize that we in 2014 were at the dawn of a technology that will no doubt transform GIS and our everyday lives. I anticipate sensors soon capable of capturing imagery in a wide variety of wavelengths, as well as atmospheric and other types of sensors that will further hasten the era of big data. I am hopeful that we will chart a prudent course through the advent of UAVs, taking advantage of the innumerable benefits that UAVs can offer the GIS industry and also society as a whole.