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.
Last year we wrote about some of the privacy concerns being raised with respect to the operation of commercial drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Despite the many actual and potential beneficial uses of drones in search and rescue, emergency response (for example, Typhoon Haiyan), farming and in retail (Amazon’s Prime Air program), persistent fears about government surveillance and snooping neighbours continue unabated.
Drone. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Politico recently reported on a new voluntary code of practice being developed by the Obama administration for owners and operators of commercial drones. Although the FAA in the United States has authority over the operation of drones near airports, there is no national policy covering commercial drone operations and no formal rules governing what type of data can be collected by drones.
With the cost of drones continuing to come down, and the number of small and independent drone operators continuing to rise, technological innovation has once again raced ahead of the legislation governing its use. Given that there are so many commercial and private sector operators either preparing to use or actively using drones, it remains to be seen if a voluntary code of practice will be effective in managing drone use and addressing legitimate privacy concerns or if government regulation is the only solution.
Following on from last week’s post on the National Atlas and changes to the National Map in the USA, The Australian Government has recently announced the National Map Open Data Initiative to provide improved access to publicly available government datasets. A beta version of the National Map website, hosted by NICTA (Australia’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Research Centre of Excellence), is now available and provides map-based access to a variety of Australian spatial data from government agencies including the Bureau of Meteorology, the Bureau of Statistics and data.gov.au. The currently available data themes include:
- Broadband – availability and quality across Australia
- Land – including cover, geology and earthquake hazards
- Transport – roads, railways, foot tracks
- Infrastructure – waste management, wind pumps, mines and wells
- Groundwater – aquifers, salinity
Developed on an open source platform, the National Map site will ultimately be hosted by Geoscience Australia when it goes into full production later on in 2014.
Visitors to the site can load their own data, either as a data file or WMS/WFS service, or download data (supported formats include GeoJSON, KML, KMZ and CSV) subject to the licensing arrangements of the data providers.
One of the most useful sites of the past 15 years for GIS users, in my judgment, has been the National Atlas of the United States. It contains a “map maker” that allows you to create online maps of climate, ecoregions, population, crime, geology, and many other layers, and a “map layers” repository that houses all of the raster and vector data layers that are displayable in the map maker. All of those hundreds of layers are downloadable in standard formats that are easy to use with GIS.
Sadly, the National Atlas is scheduled to disappear on 30 September 2014. According to the transition FAQ, “the National Atlas and The National Map will transition into a combined single source for geospatial and cartographic information. This transformation is projected to streamline access to maps, data and information from the USGS National Geospatial Program (NGP). This action will prioritize our civilian mapping role and consolidate core investments while maintaining top-quality customer service.” Thus, the National Map is scheduled to be the content delivery mechanism for the National Atlas content.
But, data users take note: Not all of the National Atlas content is migrating to the National Map. According to the FAQ’s question of “Will I still be able to find everything from the National Atlas on The National Map web site”, the answer is, “No. Most National Atlas products and services that were primarily intended for a broad public audience as well as thematic data contributions from outside the National Geospatial Program (NGP) will not be available from nationalmap.gov.”
I think this is most unfortunate news. In my opinion, and that of many students and educators that I work with in courses and institutes, and the other data users I have worked with over the years, the National Map is almost as clunky and difficult to use as it was 10 years ago. I use it frequently because it is still one of the richest sources of data, but it is by no means easy to obtain that data. And equally importantly, it serves a different audience than the National Atlas does. Yes, the National Atlas viewer is dated, but it requires little bandwidth, making it accessible to schools and other institutions contending with poor connectivity. How much effort is required just to leave national atlas alone and leave it online, with an understanding that it will not be updated?
In an era where more geospatial data are needed, not less, and improved geographic literacy is increasingly critical to education and society, the disappearance of the National Atlas seems like a giant step backward.
We have written many posts over the last two years on open data and the many data portals that are now available, providing open access to a range of datasets. However as Anders Pedersen (Open Knowledge Foundation) recently remarked during a data skills training initiative, open data does not end with setting up an open data portal; it’s not enough to just make the data available, the data also has to be ‘reusable and redistributable’.That means publishing the data in more open formats, such as .csv and .txt as opposed to pdfs, to provide the widest possible access to the data.
Pedersen also urged those responsible for establishing data portals to remember that once a data portal is operational the work doesn’t end there. Much remains to be done to keep the site and its content up to date, and promoting the portal to make sure people know about it and what information it provides access to. This means those who maintain portals must have the necessary data collection, management and visualisation skills to support this ongoing effort. Improved access should widen the potential audience for the data, something Pedersen argues will be good for data quality; other agencies and interested citizens will help validate the data, hence ‘more eyes, better data’.
We have reported some examples of portals that have slipped into obsolescence due to a lack of continued support and the comments from Frank Biasi (National Geographic Maps) who reflected on the demise of a conservation geoportal noting, amongst other things, that “.. the concept of sharing data is much more advanced than the practice“. Training initiatives like those offered by the OKF will hopefully help those involved with open data learn from the experiences of others and avoid some of the mistakes of earlier projects.
A recent essay and presentation by my colleague Jan Willem van Eck about breaking down open data barriers provides instructive insight on the developments in the field of open data pertaining to geospatial information, and why it all matters. Van Eck states that “open data is a multi-perspective topic (e.g. transparency, economic, political)” but also that “these perspectives do not necessarily overlap.” Hmm… very true. How can we bring these perspectives together? Through continued efforts in conferences, essays, videos, webinars, and other means of communication in which many in the geospatial community are involved.
From his examples, it is clear that compelling cases of successful projects that thrived because data were in fact open are still needed, despite recent progress made. It is also clear from his statements that often the most successful examples are ones that combine government agencies, research institutions, and companies; in other words, not just from government agencies alone. One example he mentions is the new national elevation data for The Netherlands. Software developments such as the open data app from Esri are other significant steps forward.
Van Eck identifies three major challenges: Drawing a line between government and industry’s activities, ensuring the continuity of the data stream, and protecting privacy. But I think the most instructive part of his essay and his presentation is his admonition of aligning open data supply and demand. How can organizations know what the demand is unless those of us who are actually using GIS make it known what is needed? The continued journey toward breaking down open data barriers is something most of us in the geospatial community can and should promote. The fact that van Eck was permitted to present this topic at a recent EuroSDR meeting was significant. As he states, discovering the real value of open data for society as a whole should be our goal, not the benefits for just a few organizations. As he makes clear, “open (geo)data is too important to just leave up to government.”
In April we wrote about the launch of the Sentinel-1A satellite, part of the European Union’s Copernicus Earth Observation project, and the plans to make the data publicly available. Although the satellite is still being calibrated and not yet fully operational, it has already provided some radar data to help support the recent flood mapping activity in the Balkans. As the radar on-board Sentinal-1A can operate through cloud, rain and in darkness it is especially useful for monitoring floods.
After persistent heavy rainfall resulted in widespread flooding and a number of landslides in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the emergency services needed access to accurate and current maps of the region to support the relief effort. The data from Sentinel-1A helped identify areas of flooding that the emergency services were unaware of.
The Sentinel-1A satellite has also helped monitor flooding when the Zambezi River burst its banks in April, inundating the border between Namibia, Zambia and Botswana. Data from the satellite were made available to the Namibian authorities within three hours of collection, providing near real-time information for an area had been difficult to survey on the ground.
Given the impact Sentinel-1A has already had, the Earth Observation project looks set to make a major contribution to environmental monitoring and assessment. The satellite will soon be fully operational, helping to provide some of the data that will support a more holistic approach to environmental management.