Archive for May, 2012

Locational Privacy: Cellphones vs. GPS

May 31, 2012 1 comment

In our book The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, we consider a number of issues surrounding privacy and geospatial data.  As technology improves in spatial accuracy and becomes more ubiquitous, the issues that we are raising in the book are quickly moving from GIS news to front-page news.  For example, reported last week “in the wake of a historic Supreme Court ruling that police can’t use GPS devices planted on a car to track suspects without a warrant,” the US Congress “is reconsidering the question of what kinds of location tracking constitute an invasion of privacy.” And a University of Pennsylvania reminds them that the smartphone can track people more precisely than any device merely attached to our car–even without the use of GPS:

Can it? I conducted a series of tests between a GPS as a standalone receiver versus a smartphone last year, and I found remarkable horizontal accuracy on my phone:

All of this reinforces our book’s points that as the technology improves, it spreads beyond the original core GIS users, and that opens up even more issues in broader society, as well as being excellent fodder for discussion with students in teaching GIS, sociology, geography, law, and other subjects.

Categories: Public Domain Data

Data, data, every where, nor any point to map

May 25, 2012 6 comments

Having spent more time over the last 2-3 years than I care to quantify trawling the internet for public domain datasets to use on various projects, I’ve reached some disappointing conclusions: I will rarely find exactly what I’m after, working with data portals can be very frustrating, adding and maintaining metadata is a frequently neglected chore, and all too often data are published but not adequately promoted.

Co-author Joseph Kerski recently described a particularly frustrating day spent trying to find some geology data for a presentation he was working on.  Having failed to locate a data source on-line,  he ended up contacting a colleague at a state geological survey office who was able to provide access to some data. Joseph was also given permission to publish the data on ArcGIS Online for others to use, but he was left wondering why the organisation hadn’t chosen to publish and promote the data source itself.

In this era of open access, when organisations are rushing to liberate their data stores, many of these new on-line repositories often lack an effective interface to the data. Increasingly sophisticated search engines quickly return a list of candidates for each inquiry, but the success of a query can often rely on the syntax of the search instruction. Depending on how each query is worded, the whole process may be very hit or miss. From my own experiences, it would be good to see a more task-based approach to searching for, and providing access to, data. When people go looking for data, they generally have specific requirements for a given task and they’re looking for specific data, in a specific location, over a specific time period, with a view to producing a specific information product as the output.  Few people have the time or inclination to trawl through everything every to do with ‘housing’ or ‘planning’; they also need the tools to allow them to extract the information that will serve their purpose.

Frank Biasi (National Geographic Maps) once commented on the demise of a conservation geoportal noting, amongst other things, that  “.. the concept of sharing data is much more advanced than the practice“. Seems like we still need a lot more practise.

Something to watch over us – The Economist says that the Earth should be monitored more carefully

A recent article in The Economist [] makes a case that governments are spending too little on collecting information via Earth-observing satellites.  Starting with the news from 8 April 2012, when Envisat ceasing to communicate with observers, the article quotes a US National Academies report that states that the number of such satellites flown by the US government is likely to decline from 23 today to 6 in 2010, with the number of instruments declining from 90 to 20, with a potentially serious decline in Europe as well.

The article is significant for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a widely read and non-GIS journal such as The Economist is publishing something so central to GIS and remote sensing indicates that topics that were formerly only near to the geospatial community’s heart are now making their way to the general public.

Jill Clark and I make a case in The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data that government-supported satellite programs have helped spawn enormous growth in derivative data, services, and research in private industry, government, and academia.  But those programs carry with them large costs.  How much of these costs should be borne by government-sponsored data collection, and how much should be borne by private industry?  And if some of the programs are paid for by governments, and ultimately, citizens, shouldn’t citizens have access to the resulting data? If so, should they have to pay a user fee for it?  Should that data be copyrighted?

National Land Survey of Finland (NLS) now providing topographic data for free

As of 1 May 2012, Finland’s NLS agency are now providing nationwide topographic data free of charge. The data, in both vector and raster format, are no longer subject to licence or right-to-use restrictions and fees. This new national  resource also includes imagery and Lidar data.

An accompanying on-line data download service is currently under development and is expected to be fully operational by the end of May 2012 (  Anyone wishing to access to data in the mean time will have to pay a small handling fee. Not included in the free data service are maritime data, due to liability concerns, and property boundary lines as these remain subject to copyright.

Although commercial use of the free data is permitted (subject to attribution), the download service is not intended for businesses requiring large amounts of data. Bulk data orders will continue to be processed and delivered separately.