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.
The Open Geoportal (OGP) project is ‘…. a collaboratively developed, open source, federated web application to rapidly discover, preview, and retrieve geospatial data from multiple organizations‘. The project, lead by Tufts University in conjunction a number of partner organisations including Harvard, MIT, Stanford and UCLA, was established to provide a framework for organizations to share geospatial data layers, maps, metadata, and development resources through a common interface. Version 2.0 of the OGP was released in April 2013, providing an improved interface and interoperability for a number of web mapping environments.
OGP currently supports four production geoportal instances:
- Harvard Geospatial Library: Geospatial data catalog from the Harvard University libraries
- UC Berkeley Geospatial Data Repository: Geospatial data from UC Berkeley Library
- MIT GeoWeb: Geospatial data from the MIT Geodata Repository, MassGIS, and Harvard Geospatial Library
- GeoData@Tufts: Geoportal developed and maintained by Tufts University Information Technology, providing search tools for data discovery and for use in teaching, learning, and research.
The data may be streamed, downloaded or shared as required. Although many of the data layers are publicly available, access to some of the layers is restricted and requires registration with the geoportal.
A number of geoportals are currently in development including those from the universities of Colombia, Washington and Yale.
In our book on GIS and Public Domain Data, we describe several court cases that illustrate the ongoing debates and ways of thinking about the value of public domain spatial data, who should pay for it, and who should have access to it. One of the most famous cases is that of the Sierra Club vs. Orange County California. To recap, the Sierra Club is suing Orange County for access to its GIS-compatible digital parcel basemap database under terms of the California Public Records Act that include paying no more than the direct cost of duplication. Orange County has been requiring users of its “OC Landbase” to pay USD $475,000, plus sign a license that restricts sharing or redistribution of its database.
Although Orange County abruptly reduced its price late in December 2011, the case has been going on since 2009. At stake is whether the public has unfettered access to the GIS-compatible data that its government agencies use to conduct “the public’s business,” in the same geodatabase format that the agencies themselves use, or whether the government can license, restrict and charge high prices for such access. As more and more governmental decisions and actions are based on GIS analysis, the issue is central to governmental transparency and accountability to citizens.
The California Public Records Act states in §6253.9 that any agency that has information which constitutes identifiable public records in electronic format, shall make the information available in the electronic format in which it holds the information, and that the agency shall provide a copy of the electronic records if the requested format is one that has been used by the agency to create copies for its own use, or for provision to other agencies. Further, the section states that the cost of duplication shall be limited to the direct cost of producing a copy of the records in the electronic format. The crux of Orange County’s argument is that its GIS-formatted database is exempted under §6254.9, the so-called “software exemption.”
Sierra Club, joined by 212 individual GIS professionals and 23 professional GIS organizations who co-signed one amicus brief among seven supportive amicus briefs, contend that “computer mapping systems” refers only to software, not to the data on which the software operates. Further, it has asserted that .pdf files are not equivalent to a GIS-compatible database, and that the public’s right to inspect and review the exact same data that Orange County uses to make its decisions would be curtailed by .pdf-only data.
Keep watching this blog for updates on this and other issues in the rapidly changing landscape of public domain spatial data. How do you think this case will turn out?
In The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data we devoted one chapter to a discussion of the Free versus Fee debate: Should spatial data be made available for free or should individuals, companies and government organisations charge for their data? In a recently published article Sell your data to save the economy and your future the author Jaron Lanier argues that a ‘monetised information economy‘, where information is a commodity that is traded to the advantage of both the information provider and the information collector, is best way forward.
Lanier argues that although the current movement for making data available for free has become well established, with many arguing that it has the potential for democratising the digital economy through access to open software, open spatial data, open education resources and the like, insisting that data is available for free will ultimately mean a small digital elite will thrive at the expense of the majority. Data, and the information products derived from them, are the new currency in the digital age and those who don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of this source of re-enumeration will lose out. Large IT companies with the best computing facilities, who collect and re-use our information, will be the winners with their ‘big data‘ crunching computers ‘... guarded like oilfields‘.
In one vision of an alternative information economy, people would be paid when data they made available via a network were accessed by someone else. Could selling the data that are collected by us, and about us, be a viable option and would it give us more control over how the data are used? Or is the open approach to data access and sharing the best way forward?
One of the themes of our book is the continued progress in the open data movement. US President Barack Obama recently signed an Executive Order to make government-held data more accessible to the public, declaring that information is a valuable resource and strategic asset for the United States. The Memorandum establishes a framework to help institutionalise the principles of effective information management at each stage of the information’s useful life to promote interoperability and openness.
The Memorandum requires all major federal agencies under the executive branch to make their data “easy to find, accessible, and usable,” with an important caveat: “wherever possible and legally permissible.” The White House also released a new set of open source software tools on Github that federal agencies can use to get more of their data out onto the web in software developer and user-friendly formats, including one script that converts databases into software APIs.
Those of us working in the geospatial field know very well that it takes more than memoranda to truly make more data available to those needing it, including geospatial data. So, in one sense, this type of news seems like something we’ve heard before. Too often, government orders are issued and portals are designed that gather cyber-dust, largely unused because no GIS users were actually consulted in the process. Still, this recent news is encouraging. It is our hope that the people creating portals and systems that result from this new executive order will actually consult with the GIS community. That way, the data is more likely to be useful to those who need it.
Europeana, Europe’s digital library and archive, provides an Internet portal for European cultural heritage, facilitating access to a diverse range of cultural objects, historical maps and archive collections maintained in galleries, libraries and museums across Europe. In addition to the collections and content maintained by the host organisations, Europeana also uses a number of additional open data sources to augment some of the content available via the portal, including GeoNames, the geographical database of place names.
The library has published a Public Domain Charter, setting out the principles for a ‘healthy Public Domain‘, explaining what the Public Domain is and why it it important. According to Europeana, works in the Public Domain are ‘…the material from which society derives knowledge and fashions new cultural works. Having a healthy and thriving Public Domain is essential to the social and economic well-being of society.‘ The Europeana website also discusses the importance of Public Domain in the digital age, which has resulted in ‘massive digitisation efforts‘ producing digital collections on a scale previously unimaginable and introduced new funding challenges for the organisations that develop and maintain those collections. Given the current fiscal conditions facing many European countries, Europeana acknowledges the pressure many organisations may be under to generate income from licensing their content to help offset the costs of producing these new digital resources. However, by publishing the Public Domain Charter, Europeana hopes it will send out a strong signal to content providers and policy makers as to the importance of maintaining works in the Public Domain.
The Web-enabled Landsat Data (WELD) project generates 30-meter composites of Landsat 7 Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) terrain corrected (Level 1T) mosaics at weekly, monthly, seasonal and annual periods for the conterminous United States (CONUS) and Alaska. These mosaics provide consistent data that can be used to derive land cover as well as geophysical and biophysical products for regional assessment of surface dynamics and to study Earth system functioning.
A collaboration between the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center and academic partner South Dakota State University Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence, this is an excellent resource for all who seek to compare land use through time and through seasonal variation using Landsat data in the continental USA and in Alaska. The WELD documentation site describes the WELD products on the site, known issues, and future plans.
WELD products are available as custom GeoTiff subsets via a new interactive web ordering system and as tiled HDF products via FTP. I found the site fairly intuitive, simple, and straightforward to use. Its products are directly importable into GIS software and hence it provides much more than visualizations, but rather, products useful to the GIS analyst. The “good news, bad news” is that the GIS data user is confronted with an array of Landsat sites from which they may obtain data. Each has its own interface and formats, but the situation is still far better than 10 years ago when nearly all of it was either for fee or difficult to obtain. Because it is not well linked to other sites, the WELD site is difficult to “stumble across” unless the data user is familiar with the acronym. However, it is well worth a visit as it is one of the most intuitive and resource-rich.
Almost a year ago I wrote a post, Data, data everywhere nor any point to map, on some of the problems I’d encountered when trying to find spatial data for some projects I was working at the time. Among the main problems I kept running into were a lack of good portal interface design, a lack of reliable metadata and an unstructured approach to searching. In the intervening months I haven’t seen many initiatives specifically addressing some of those problems but I did notice the following Microsoft Research project, A visualization-enhanced graphical user interface for geospatial resource discovery, published in the Annals of GIS. The project authors (Zhipeng Gui, Chaowei Yang, Jizhe Xia, Jing Li, Abdelmounaam Rezgui, Min Sun, Yan Xu, and Daniel Fay), are proposing a ‘ visualization- and interaction-enhanced discovery workflow‘ to address the following shortcomings in geospatial data discovery:
*) Search portals lack intuitive and visual methods to present search results
*) Inadequate functions to sort, filter, explore and analyse results
*) Missing value-added information
The prototype search portal, GeoSearch, based on a Bing Maps Viewer and incorporating various filtering and visualization tools, is reported to improve the general user experience and can help users obtain required geospatial resources effectively and efficiently. I would be very interested in taking it for a test drive.
… and while we are on the subject of improved access to spatial data, Bjørn Sandvik recently reported the Norwegian Mapping Authority‘s announcement last week to make their 1:50,000 topographic, address, road and cadastre datasets publicly available, and free of charge, later on this year.