Archive for May, 2013

New executive order in USA requires agencies to publish ‘open data’

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.

Federal Spatial Data

Federal Spatial Data

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’s Public Domain Charter

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.

Historical and seasonal Landsat data: WELD Resource

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.

Landsat WELD resource

Landsat WELD resource

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.

Improvements for geospatial resource discovery

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.