Connecting the 4 SIFT moves to geospatial technology

Mike Caulfield’s 4 SIFT moves are a helpful set of easy-to-remember guidelines designed to help students sort truth from fiction and to think critically. The SIFT moves give people a short list of things to do when looking at a source, and each is connected to 1 or 2 highly effective web techniques. The four moves are: S Stop, I Investigate the source, F Find better coverage, and T Trace the original context.

The 4 SIFT moves. Thanks Mike Caulfield!

Mike is an educator, but these 4 moves I believe are appropriate even to those who are not students: GIS professionals, and to anyone consuming information today (which is all of us). Being wary of sources, context, and agendas is nothing new, but the awareness and the need for doing so is more acute now than ever: There is an amazing volume and variety of information at our fingertips, both accurate and inaccurate. A major part of information is geo-information, in the form of maps, map layers, infographics, dashboards, and storymaps. How can we continually think critically about data, and geospatial information in particular? That is the one of the chief purposes of this blog and our book. And since this geo-information is used to understand problems and to solve them, the need for critically evaluating information will remain important.

One thing I like about these 4 moves is the advice to ask who the speaker or publisher is. “What’s their expertise? What’s their agenda? What’s their record of fairness or accuracy?” In today’s big data mapping world, sometimes digging this information out goes far beyond just reading the metadata (or lack of it). It may require going to each organization producing the geospatial information, looking up their mission, the background of their researchers, and so on.

Another thing I like about Mike’s advice is, “Do you have to agree with the consensus once you find it? Absolutely not! But understanding the context and history of a claim will help you better evaluate it and form a starting point for future investigation.” Again I find excellent connections to GIS work but I also offer this advice to the GIS community: Do you have to accept every map that you see? No! Maps have an air of authenticity; they tend to believed. Everyone is a mapmaker these days, with open data portals, web GIS tools, and ways to share results as maps and web mapping applications. I encourage you to spend the time to dig into the sources, the methods, the tools used for data that you are considering using in your project that others have created. And if you have time, don’t just disagree with the source–map the issue or phenomena yourself, using analysis methods, classification, symbology, and other tools that you feel better represents that issue or problem. Our world is complex, and the problems in our world need multiple viewpoints and methods applied: Your investigation could add to what could be a more well-rounded understanding of that issue.

To dig deeper, Mike also offers a free mini-course in these techniques.

–Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Global Fundamental Geospatial Data Themes

June 20, 2022 3 comments

The GIS Guide to Public Domain data book and this blog have touched on many data themes since we started this effort in 2012. What are the core data themes needed to achieve a more sustainable Earth? The Global Fundamental Geospatial Data Themes mentioned below are one attempt to list these; they number 14 in total, from Geographic Names, Addresses to Land Cover and Imagery. This story map takes the reader through the themes and demonstrate what they are, how they can be used, and why they are fundamental:

Global Fundamental Geospatial Data Themes according to the UN.

Consistent with the theme of this data blog, the reader should immediately ask several questions when reading statements such as the above, beginning with “Who says these are the most important themes?” The story map fortunately gives this type of metadata: The United Nation’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established the Committee of Experts as the apex intergovernmental mechanism for making joint decisions and setting directions with regard to the production, availability and use of geospatial information within national, regional and global policy frameworks. Led by United Nations Member States, This organization, the UN-GGIM (UN Global Geospatial Information Management) integrates aims to address global challenges regarding the use of geospatial information, including in the development agendas, and to serve as a body for global policymaking in the field of geospatial information management.

The story map wisely states that “Implementing the themes will necessitate the integration of information from National Mapping Agencies, National Statistical Offices and other institutions to produce standardised, fundamental data, for use within member states, and also, to support initiatives such as the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.” Indeed.

Use the story map listed above to explore the themes and why they matter. Use it also to discuss with students or colleagues what some of the challenges are that are inherent in gathering any of the 14 themes consistently and at sufficient resolution for them to be useful in achieving such aims as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Use this Spatial Reserves data blog to identify and access sources for each of these themes. Over the past decade, this blog has touched on each of these 14 themes.

–Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

WorldPop: Global spatial demographic data

June 13, 2022 1 comment

Way back in Oct 2012 I wrote about some of the resources that were available at the time to provide access to detailed and freely available population distribution maps for Asia, Africa, and the Americas (Free population distribution data for Asia and Africa).

Since then a new research programme, WorldPop, has been established at the University of Southampton in the UK to combine and develop the AfriPop, AsiaPop, and AmeriPop projects into one global resource for detailed population distribution and characteristics data.

The WorldPop site provides access to over 44,700 datasets in a variety of categories including Global Settlement Growth, Population Density, and Migration Flows. All datasets are available under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

Internal Migration Flow – Africa

In addition to the datasets, a number of plugins are available for downloading and manipulating the data, and the published WorldPop REST API returns data/metadata in JSON format.

Teaching and learning about geo-ethics with the Geoprivacy video series

Recently at a GIS conference I had the honor of meeting Colorado Mountain College GIS professor Dr Dara Seidl. Dr Seidl’s work I believe will have great interest to the readers of this blog, as much of it centers around geospatial data and societal issues. Dr Seidl recently completed a yearlong fellowship with the American Geographical Society, to study privacy issues. Her findings are featured in an eight-part series of short educational videos, the Geoprivacy Series. These engaging videos are accompanied by guidelines for educators to help them fully use each video in instructional settings. Each set of guidelines contains a link to the video, a summary of the video, activities, guiding points for class discussions, and article links for digging deeper into the issue. But I would argue that these resources are so well done and so relevant to everyday life that they should be viewed by everyone, not just instructors and students.

Topics covered in these resources include the potential to falsely identify crime suspects to using GPS data to track shopping and dining habits of private citizens, smart energy and tracking, a bicycle theft from a social media ad for that bicycle, and personal disturbing text messages based on location. I found them all to be personal and disturbing, but relevant and important to discuss.

One of these intriguing videos features a mock interview with a “repo man,” an employee for a vehicle
repossession company, talking about his use of automated license plate reader (ALPR) technology. The interviewee discusses how the ALPR camera system on his “spotter car” continuously collects license plate data, along with location, time, date, and photographs of all cars along his daily driving routes. He notes
that he specifically targets certain parking lots and apartment complexes, and his company sells all the license plate location data to police, banks, and insurance companies. In the educator guidelines accompanying this video, Dr Seidl suggests several intriguing activities, such as identifying and mapping nearby surveillance cameras and filing a FOIA request. The discussion points begin with a series of intriguing questions, such as: “Does ALPR lead to uneven surveillance between groups? If so, which groups of people are more likely to be surveilled? Is it fair to target certain neighborhoods or parking lots with ALPR, as the “repo man” in this video claims to do? Should companies be legally allowed to
collect license plate locations and pictures? Is it fair to use systematic location surveillance to fight fraud?
The “repo man” in this video claims that using mobile ALPR cameras is just like walking down the street recording plates with a pen and paper. Is this a valid claim?”

Dr Seidl’s approach to these issues closely aligns with our own here on Spatial Reserves: That these issues are too important not to be taught, and that they can be taught in engaging ways with real-world scenarios and with hands-on activities.

I highly encourage you to not only view these resources, but to use these in your own instruction and in your conversations with colleagues and stakeholders.

Dr Dara Seidl, right, along with 2 snippets from her GeoPrivacy educational resources.

Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Responsible and ethical use of location data: Resources from Doug Specht

At a recent conference of the European Association of Geographers, I had the honor of being re-acquainted with Doug Sprecht and his work. Doug is a Chartered Geographer, Advanced Teacher, and Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Westminster in the UK. His work can be found here, including his forthcoming book which I am greatly looking forward to, the Routledge Handbook of Geospatial Technology and Society. At the conference, Doug shared some of his recent writings and additional resources that are germane to the focus of our book and this blog and graciously agreed for me to highlight them here.

Royal Geographical Society Ask the Geographer (Ethics podcast) and teaching materials: [] These include “Roads to nowhere: How maps change the way we travel and experience the world around us”, “Ethics and geospatial data”, “Locating open access resources”, “The ethics of open data”, and “Defining types of data”, all of which are short but insightful, able to be used directly in discussions with students and for consideration in research projects.

UK Statistics Authority ethics guide: []

This guidance document explores ethical considerations in the use of geospatial data for research, analysis and statistics. It has been developed by the UK Statistics Authority’s Centre for Applied Data Ethics in partnership with geospatial colleagues. It is divided into 8 main parts, providing an initial introduction to geospatial data and ethics, before moving on to consider case examples and potential mitigations related to four key areas, as well as links to further resources. An ethics checklist is also provided for researchers and analysts using geospatial data, which summarises the main points covered in this guidance.

Locus Charter: [] The Locus Charter is an agreement spearheaded by EthicalGEO and Benchmark Initiative, which promotes responsible practice in the use of location data across all sectors including public, private, educational, and not-for-profit contexts.

UNICEF ethics guide: [] This paper is concerned with geospatial technologies and how they have transformed the way we visualize and understand social phenomena and physical environments, with a focus on ethical dilemmas such as privacy and security concerns as well as the potential for stigma and discrimination resulting from being associated with particular locations. The paper states that the use of geospatial technologies and resulting data needs to be critically assessed through an ethical lens prior to implementation of programmes, analyses or partnerships. This paper examines the benefits, risks and ethical considerations when undertaking evidence generation using geospatial technologies, supplemented by a checklist that may be used as a practical tool to support reflection on the ethical use of geospatial technologies.

I encourage you to investigate these resources and use them in your own instruction and research.

–Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Update on Energy Geospatial Data

Awhile back, we wrote about a source for electrical lines data, here, but because I keep seeing inquiries about this type of data on listserves, LinkedIn, and elsewhere, I thought an update was warranted. In addition to the source we identified in the above post, the Energy Atlas is a good source. While just for the USA, the energy atlas is an excellent example of the “modern” way to serve up geospatial data that we have been highlighting in this blog of late. Accessing its data pulls up an ArcGIS Hub site which serves the data efficiently and quickly. This data includes information on fossil fuels, nuclear, electricity, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydropower, including storage, and transmission. But, keeping in mind the sensitive nature and security issues surrounding this kind of data, your need for detail might exceed the resolution provided here. Even so, a great deal of information exists on the Atlas.

The Atlas also includes unexpected information that I was grateful to see on past natural hazards, which could be used to assess risk to the current energy infrastructure; as, for example, what occurred from a series of frigid days in early 2021 that caused massive power outages in Texas USA. The Hub site allows for multiple formats to be downloaded or streamed, such as shapefiles, KMLs, GeoJSON, file geodatabase, and CSV. Feature services as well as feature layers are offered, which means some of the data can be streamed instead of downloaded, and you can preview everything in the online interactive map viewer.

The metadata is rich, and one of the most useful pages is this one, providing metadata information for interactive state maps, an example of which is shown below.

Part of the US Energy Atlas.

One of the useful metadata pages on the energy atlas.

I invite you to explore and to suggest your own sources for energy related data for selected places in the world.

Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Societal Implications of Crowdsource Reporting: A Smoking Case Study

April 25, 2022 Leave a comment

A recent report about a mapping and crowdsourcing tool being used effectively in supporting smoke and tobacco free policies on college campuses ( (and published in October 2021 in the Oxford University Press journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research) is a fascinating use of geotechnologies to influence behavior. At the same time, it raises some privacy and ethics concerns. In this case, Survey123 and ArcGIS was used to create a Tobacco Tracker tool, and the effort resulted in over 1,000 people participating in the study. The above report stated, “While (Smoke and Tobacco Free) STF policies are necessary to reduce tobacco-related problems, they are not sufficient without effective enforcement. Reliance on social enforcement by most colleges makes increasing campus-level engagement with these policies a critical, unmet need to accelerate the impact of tobacco control policy.” I salute the innovative researcher involved in this effort and the positive impact it has had. This type of collection and reporting touches on the evolution of volunteered geographic information / crowdsourcing using mapping applications and field data collection tools that goes back nearly a decade now, as we have reported numerous times in this blog. The combination of these tools has led to a plethora of amazing applications such as this one. And one key attraction that drew most of us into the field of geotechnologies is the potential of geotechnologies to enable positive change on our planet, and in our communities.

However, with this or any similar project where people are asked to report on behaviors or activities using these tools, the following questions should be asked:

  • What type of data is recorded?
    • Are the participants being asked to include people’s photos? If so, are the participants required to obtain permission from the people they are photographing?
    • Is the name of the submitter of the data point being asked, and/or the name of the person they are reporting on?
  • Who sees the data?
    • Is the map is for the project administrators or researchers only, or for the general public?
    • If the map and data are shared, many ways exist to avoid sharing exact locations, such as interpolated surfaces or density maps. Are such techniques being used?
  • How is the data being used?
    • Is it being used to make informed decisions, or to punish?
    • If the project is being used to influence a policy, location can be a valuable tool to make decisions. If it is being used to punish, it can be an invasion of privacy.

To be honest, I like it when I am on work travel and am visiting smoke-free campuses. I have also created many videos where I have in dismay stood by piles of litter over the years on other GIS education work trips. I also would rejoice if everyone would follow the rules about littering, smoking, traffic, and other everyday rules. But the idea of people taking photos of other people engaged in specific behavior that we may not like, and then reporting on it makes me uncomfortable, however noble the cause. Is my discomfort warranted? What are your thoughts?

Source: Wikimedia. Public Domain.

Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Case Studies in Geo-Ethics

April 11, 2022 6 comments

Ethics and GIS have long been intertwined, and for good reason: As humans, our activities and movements are tied to space and place, both of which are increasingly studied and tracked. It is only over the past few years, however, that more attention has been given to these linkages in education and in the workplace. We have written many articles in Spatial Reserves about ethics, ranging from data quality issues, using copyrighted images, how to teach about ethics, and a recent webinar series, in an attempt to provide the community with concrete resources to keep this important conversation going.

One of the best ways to start a conversation with co-workers or students about ethics is to use real-world case studies. One of the best compendiums exists at Penn State, and is here: []. This compendium, compiled by my colleague David DiBiase, includes such thought-provoking scenarios such as: “A GIS analyst is asked to exclude pertinent data from maps prepared for a public hearing”, “Researchers track mobile phone users’ movements to derive predictive models of human mobility”, “A governmental agency’s need to recoup user fees conflicts with a public records law”, “A scope of work statement and established mapping procedures prevent a GIS analyst from adding wetlands to a conservation database”, and more. Each clearly presents the situation, along with supportive maps and references, in brief but pointed ways.

Case studies on GIS and Ethics.

Have you used these case studies in your work? If so, how? If not, I encourage you to do so. Either way, I invite your comments below.

Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Key Federal Geospatial Data now in the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World

March 28, 2022 1 comment

Working with US federal agencies, in 2021 Esri began to serve in the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World, many high-priority, high-demand national data layers, often referred to as A-16 data. These include cartographic boundary files and demographic data from the US Census Bureau; National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA); the National Inventory of Dams (NID) database, managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and many others. These layers are high-priority, high-demand national geospatial data layers included in the National Geospatial Data Asset Portfolio (NGDA).

We have been writing about the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World many times over the years, beginning here, and recommend it as the first stop in your data quests for many reasons.

As an educator I was glad to see ecoregions, primary and secondary school districts, and landmark structures in the collection, but dozens of other layers exist and are being added to on a continual basis. The collection can be accessed here. In my opinion one of the best ways to view the collection is in this gallery. For more details, see this essay.

The Monitoring Trends in Burned Areas Layer, part of the collection described in this essay.

–Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Improving election data: NSGIC’s Geo-Enabled Elections project

March 14, 2022 Leave a comment

With thanks to Jamie Chesser, project lead, the Geo-Enabled Elections project, NSGIC, for this post.

The use of spatial data results in real-world consequences that help shape societal outcomes; elections perhaps most concretely so. Elections are, fundamentally, about maps, as districts determine what races voters can vote in and candidates vie for. In the last four years, a project by the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) has worked with states and counties across the nation to improve the processes and refine the data sets that are used in elections. [Note: We have written about NSGIC before in this blog; see these posts].

Their main tenet: Geospatial data and GIS processes, when integrated into elections systems, make those elections more accurate, more efficient, and provide the ability to also make them more transparent.

As part of that process, data sets from other realms than elections are being deployed to audit or enhance voter rolls, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the right voters are allowed to vote and that ballots and election information can be sent to voters, without being returned to sender. 

The National Address Database, compiled and managed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is one such example. []

Also, states such as Montana have or are working on creating and validating their own state-wide address layer. In Montana’s case, the information will serve both elections and the state’s Next Generation 9-1-1 emergency call routing system. A third example of a data source are tax assessor offices since they typically track a site address for each parcel.

In December 2021, NSGIC surveyed election directors in US states and territories, and Washington D.C., to establish – among other things – whether most election directors have access to such an address resource within their state. Their answer was, essentially, “not yet.” About two-thirds of respondents, representing 53% of US states and Washington D.C., stated they don’t have, or don’t know if they have, access to such a universal address list. Read more here: [] 

Flipping this equation on its head, some states have enshrined the use of GIS data in elections processes into state statute. Doing so supports the collaboration between GIS experts and elections division staff within a state; it can also be a way to secure funding. When statutory language is drafted, states are able to include different provisions. One such provision could be that when boundaries are set, they must be made publicly available in a spatial data format. These data help campaigns and NGOs be better informed and engage in productive dialogue, and – in the current climate of election scrutiny – they can also promote transparency, allowing organizations and individuals to verify aspects of data and processes in order to build trust.

NSGIC in 2021 released model statute language for states interested in pursuing this route; this can be found here: []

Other helpful resources for election offices and others include Best Practices Guidance for how to geo-enable elections and Tools for Election Directors, both available on the NSGIC elections website. One of the best practices, number four, deals with the use of contextual map layers: []

GIS is a vital part of improving election integrity, and NSGIC is leading this effort.
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