April 16, 2012 4 comments

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.

Understanding Data: It is Critical!

November 22, 2015 1 comment

Think of spatial data as the fuel for your GIS engine.  It is fundamental to any spatial analysis.  On listservs, LinkedIn, GeoNet, in this blog, other blogs, and in our book, discussions about data are commonplace.  The volume of spatial data available has increased dramatically in recent years as have the formats in which that data is stored, and the means by which that data is delivered to the user—via web-mapping services, servers, portals, media, user-defined boxes, predefined tiles, and more.

In this avalanche of spatial data, it is more important than ever to encourage your users to fully understand the data they are using. Sometimes, stakeholders view anything on the computer as accurate and complete, including maps.  Maps are incredibly useful, but inherently full of errors and distortions, from the map projection they are drawn from, to missing data, to generalized lines.  Nowadays, anyone can make a digital map.  Help your the users of your data understand that data quality affects subsequent analysis.  For example, in a lesson I frequently teach on plate tectonics, I ask students to study 2001’s largest earthquake, below (south of) the tip of the arrow:

Using a measure tool, students determine that the earthquake is 4 kilometers off of the coast of Peru.  But then I ask them to consider the fact that the generalized coastline was digitized at 1:30,000,000 scale.  How confident are we based on this shoreline that the earthquake was offshore?  Consider the classic geography problem of calculating the length of the British (or any) coastline—the more detailed the scale, the longer the coastline becomes, because at larger and larger scales, the coastline begins to include every cape and bay.  Peru’s coastline may actually twist and turn here, so the earthquake could have occurred on the beach.  The “so what” and spatial thinking discussion continues with the impacts of coastal earthquakes versus underwater quakes, and possible tsunamis.

Encourage your data users – whether they are students, customers, managers, the general public, or others – to be critical of spatial data—knowing its source, who produced it, when and why it was produced, the scale at which it was produced, and its content.   Show them how to create and access metadata.   They will then be able to critically evaluate spatial information and decide whether they will use it in their present and future decision making.  And it is my hope that when they produce their own data, that they will tag and document it thoroughly.

2015 and Beyond: Who will control the data?

November 17, 2015 1 comment

Earlier this year Michael F. Goodchild, Emeritus Professor of Geography at the University of California at Santa Barbara, shared some thoughts about current and future GIS-related developments in an article for ArcWatch. It was interesting to note the importance attached to the issues of privacy and the volume of personal information that is now routinely captured through our browsing habits and online activities.

Prof. Goodchild sees the privacy issue as essentially one of control; what control do we as individuals have over the data that are captured about us and how that data are used. For some the solution may be to create their own personal data stores and retreat from public forums on the Internet. For others, an increasing appreciation of the value of personal information to governments and corporations, may offer a way to reclaim some control over their data. The data could be sold or traded for access to services, a trend we also commented on in a previous post.

Turning next to big data, the associated issues were characterised as the three Vs:

  • Volume—Capture, management and analysis of unprecedented volumes of data
  • Variety—Multiple data sources to locate, access, search and retrieve data from
  • Velocity—Real-time or near real-time monitoring and data collection

Together the three Vs bring a new set of challenges for data analysts and new tools and techniques will be required to process and analyse the data. These tools will be required to not only better illustrate the patterns of current behaviour but to predict more accurately future events, such as extreme weather and the outbreak and the spread of infectious diseases, and socio-economic trends. In a recent post on GIS Lounge Zachary Romano described one such initiative from Orbital Insights,  a ‘geospatial big data’ company based in California. The company is developing deep learning processes that will recognise patterns of human behaviour in satellite imagery and cited the examples of the number of cars in a car park as an indicator of retail sales or the presence of shadows as an indicator of construction activity. As the author noted, ‘Applications of this analytical tool are theoretically endless‘.

Will these new tools use satellite imagery to track changes at the level of individual properties? Assuming potentially yes, the issue of control over personal data comes to the fore again, only this time most of us won’t know what satellites are watching us, which organisations or governments control those satellites and who is doing what with our data.


The Ecological Land Units Map and Data Sets of the World

November 8, 2015 1 comment

In my view, one of the most important new global datasets released in the past year is the Ecological Land Units of the world.  This dataset came from a collaboration between Esri and Dr. Roger Sayre and others from the USGS. It was officially launched in late 2014 the ACES 2014: A Community on Ecosystem Services meeting in Washington, DC. For the data set, the collaborators undertook a massive biophysical stratification of the planet at the finest yet-attempted spatial resolution of 250 meters to produce this first-ever map of distinct physical environments and their associated land cover. Project leaders also offered a concept for delineating ecologically meaningful regions that is essentially both classification-neutral and data-driven. Their intent was to provide scientific support for planning and management (including as an important variable for GIS geodesign models and apps), and to enable understanding of impacts to ecosystems from climate change and other disturbances; hence for valuation of ecosystem services.  This site is a manifestation of Software as a Service (SaaS) that we discuss in our book.

The data from the map is offered in both the public domain and as ArcGIS Online content with considerable value-added analytical and visualization functionality. Project leaders encourage the community to test and use the data, to develop apps based on the data, and to consider delineating their own ecological regions using the ecophysiographic stratification approach with local, finer resolution datasets.

There are multiple ways to learn more and to access the map and the underlying data:

  1. As a presentation:  ACES 2014 Town Hall presentation by Roger Sayre (USGS) and Dawn Wright (Esri) via this link.
  2. As a story map:  Introduction to the ecological land units project via esriurl.com/elu
  3. As an App to explore the data via esriurl.com/EcoTapestry and search for a place of interest.
  4. As a technical report, to learn more about how the ecological land units were derived via www.aag.org/global_ecosystems
  5. As data in ArcGIS Online: Get started using this content in ArcGIS (with an ArcGIS Online for Organizations subscription) via esriurl.com/landscape
  6. As raw data as global rasters from USGS via ftp: http://rmgsc.cr.usgs.gov/outgoing/ecosystems/Global/
  7. As a white paper to give further guidance to our use case testers thoughout the academic community, and to offer the associated conceptual and technical support pro bono.
  8. For general reading, via an article in Wired magazine: New Map Shows the World’s Ecosystem in Unprecedented Detail.

Project researchers are already making improvements to the data, initially by swapping the GLOBCOVER 2009 data that they used with the new 2010 epoch Global Land Cover map (v 1.4). There will be more improvements to come as the appropriate data become available.

Ecological Land Units Map and Data

Ecological Land Units Map and Data, here, as a story map.

Categories: Public Domain Data

VGI Data Sources: Assessing Completeness and Correctness

November 2, 2015 3 comments

In a recent article published in the ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information, Quality Evaluation of VGI Using Authoritative Data—A Comparison with Land Use Data in Southern Germany, the authors investigated some of the concerns regarding data quality and data usability often levelled at Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) data sources.

The objective of the study, based in the Rhine-Neckar region of southern Germany, was to compare OSM data to the authoritative land use and land cover (LULC) data set ATKIS Base DLM version 6.0. published by the LGL mapping agency (Baden-Württemberg State Office for Geoinformation and State development).

The results for the OSM data completeness and correctness comparison were variable across the different classes of land use in the study area. However some general trends emerged including:

  • Areas with a high percentage of forest cover were the areas with the highest level of completeness and correctness.
  • Other classes (incl. farmland and urban areas) had low levels of completeness but higher levels of correctness; features present were mapped accurately but some features were missing.
  • Other areas (incl. quarry and lakes) had high levels of completeness (most features mapped) but had a greater percentage of incorrectly mapped features.
  • There was a marked difference between rural and urban areas; the study identified higher OSM coverage and thematic accuracy in densely populated areas (more people available/interested in collecting the data?).
  • Some land use classes demonstrated both high levels of completeness and correctness, suggesting they had been mapped for a specific purpose.

Although not intended as a definitive statement of OSM data quality, the study suggested that if full coverage and accurate LULC data was a requirement for a project, then OSM data (at present) may not be the best option. However for certain land use classes, where the LULC information was available it was mostly correct so depending on project requirements OSM data may be a suitable alternative.

As we’ve said many times before on Spatial Reserves, it is not whether the data are good, but rather if they are good enough to meet your requirements.

Dorn, H.,Törnros, T. and Zipf, A. (2015). Quality Evaluation of VGI Using Authoritative Data—A Comparison with Land Use Data in Southern Germany. ISPRS Int. J. Geo-Inf. 4, pp. 1657 – 1670

New CIESIN Data Layers on Hazardous Waste, Emissions, Population, Wild Areas, and More

October 25, 2015 1 comment

One of the longest lasting and richest geospatial data depositories has been Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), which we describe and praise in our book, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data. CIESIN recently published six new data layers in on the Landscape for Contributors group in ArcGIS Online.  These layers contain information on hazardous waste sites, the “global human footprint”, emissions, roads, population, and the world’s remaining wild areas.  These data sets are free to use.  To find these six layers easily in the three pages of listings in this Group, to the group’s link above, and search (control-F in most browsers) on the term “Columbia”, because Columbia University is the owner’s name for these layers.   The six layers might also be housed on page two or another page in the group, so be sure to check those pages too.  Because the layers reside in the ArcGIS Online library, this data can be used as layers in ArcGIS Online web maps, or downloaded, where they can be used in ArcGIS Desktop or in other packages.

According to CIESIN, they will be publishing additional data in the Landscape for Contributors group in the upcoming months!

New data layers from CIESIN published

New “landscape for contributors” data layers from CIESIN published.

Categories: Public Domain Data

Spatial Agent: Highlighting Public Domain Datasets

October 19, 2015 1 comment

The World Bank recently announced the release of a new Spatial Agent app for iOS and Android (web version also available). The app curates an already impressive collection of public domain spatial datasets in a variety of formats from over 300 web services, with the developers promising to add more iconic datasets. App users can choose between the following data sources:

  • Indicators (for example % of female employees in agriculture or % of forested land areas)
  • Map layers
  • Other (for example the Nepalese major river system or hydro power plants in Malawi)

The data can be displayed against a back-drop of one of four base map sources:

  • Shaded relief (NOAA)
  • Street map
  • Topographic map
  • World imagery

with the option to set the area of interest by Country, Basin or Region.

In this example a layer of CIESIN’s earthquake hazard frequency and distribution data is displayed against a backdrop of world imagery.

Spatial Agent: Earthquake Hazards

Spatial Agent: Earthquake Hazards

Each dataset is accompanied by a short description of the source and intended purpose and as the datasets are public domain, they may be shared through email and/or social media.

The World Bank hope that the app will help spread the news about public domain data and go some way to organising the ‘current big data cosmos’.









No Place Else I’d Rather Be: Troubles and Triumphs of Prairie Restoration

October 10, 2015 Leave a comment

By Sarah Hagan
Spatial Ecologist, The Nature Conservancy, Illinois, USA

It’s a sunny midsummer morning in south central Wisconsin. From my position on the bluff overlooking a large prairie and wetland complex, I can hear several varieties of songbirds in the trees above me. To my right, high up in the old, gnarled burr oaks, I hear the squawking and drumming of a flock of red-headed woodpeckers. The scene above and below me is lush and green and idyllic, but that’s not what I’m thinking about.

I’m thinking about how it’s not even ten in the morning and the temperature has already risen above 85°F. I’m thinking about how I just slid down a 60+° slope through a patch of poison ivy for what feels like the thousandth time in the past two hours. I’m thinking about how I can still feel the cuts on my legs from my trek through the honeysuckle and blackberries. I’m thinking about the chemical burns on the side of my neck that I was rewarded with when I failed to dodge a wild parsnip as it careened toward my face a week ago. I’m hot and I’m tired and I’m dirty and I still have six hours of this ahead of me before I climb into a car, drive 45 minutes back to my apartment, take a shower, eat a mountain of food, and fall asleep by 10:00 p.m. while my roommates head out to have all the fun that summer in Madison can offer. At 6:00 a.m. my alarm will ring and I’ll wake up and do it all again.

The Work--and the Rewards--of Prairie Restoration

The Work–and the Rewards–of Prairie Restoration.

Prairie restoration, as with most forms of conservation and land management, is rarely as glamorous as friends and family may think it is. It requires long hours in long sleeves and long pants under the blazing summer sun with little to no cover to speak of. It requires trekking through sometimes difficult terrain to places inaccessible by vehicle, shovel slung over your shoulder as you climb up hills and through brush—most of which has some manner of thorns—while insects buzz around your head and climb at your feet. The summer I spent working in prairie restoration in southern Wisconsin was one of the most difficult of my life. While friends were staying out late and sleeping in and celebrating their recent completion of undergraduate study, I was waking up early and collapsing into bed, sunburnt and aching and exhausted, a few hours after I arrived back home. Never a morning person, I grumbled at the 6:00 a.m. wakeup call and the prospect of another day of grueling work under a relentless sun.

That summer was also one of the most rewarding of my career. I learned more about ecology—bird and plant identification, care of the land, the history of the land—in a few short weeks on the prairie than I did in four years of top-rate university education. I had more wholly rewarding experiences standing amidst the grasses than I did anywhere else that my travels had taken me. I still recall the day that, while pulling garlic mustard deep in a forest, I stumbled upon a fern grove. It was the sort of magical place that you picture in your mind while reading old fairy tales. I half expected gnomes and sprites to be running about beneath my feet. I remember uncovering a nest of newly hatched wild turkeys, the little ones all striped and fuzzy as they peeped and scurried about until their mother returned. I remember the calls of the Sandhill cranes as they flew gracefully over my head. I remember the rare orchids and the flocks of red-headed woodpeckers becoming an almost commonplace daily fixture.

Prairie restoration is difficult. You’re hot and tired and dirty for long hours, day after day. There’s always more work to be done. It’s easy to give up on the grasslands, to decide that it’s hopeless. It’s easy to wonder why you’re doing this anyway. But for every day I felt miserable and sorry for myself, there was a moment where a rare breeze blew around me and I put my shovel down for a moment, looked at the seemingly endless fields of big bluestem waving in the wind, listened to the birds singing all around me, and thought, “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”


Authors:  This week’s post is guest written by The Nature Conservancy’s Landfire team, which includes Kori Blankenship, Sarah Hagen, Randy Swaty, Kim Hall, Jeannie Patton, and Jim Smith. The Landfire team is focused on data, models, and tools developed to support applications, land management and planning for biodiversity conservation.

If *you* would like to guest write for the Spatial Reserves blog about geospatial data, use the About the Authors section and contact one of us about your topic.


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