A couple of interesting articles have appeared recently discussing the emergence of Google Maps, the changing fortunes of some other leading mapping companies and an argument against the dominance of Google products in favour of OpenStreetMap. In his article Google’s Road to Global Domination Adam Fisher charts the rise of the Google Maps phenomenon, the visionary aspirations to chart streets in San Francisco that led to the development of Street View and the development of technologies, such as the self-driving car, that will incorporate the accumulated map data and may one day obviate the requirement for individuals to interpret a map for themselves.
Taking a stand against a mapping monopoly, Serge Wroclawski’s post Why the World Needs OpenStreetMap, urges readers to rethink their habitual Google Maps usage in favour of the ‘neutral and transparent‘ OpenStreetMap. Wroclawski argues that no one company should have sole responsibility for interpreting place, nor the information associated with that place, (we wrote on a similar theme in Truth in Maps about the potential for bias in mapping) and that a map product based on the combined efforts of a global network of contributors, which is free to download and can be used without trading personal location information, is the better option for society. However, in his closing comment Fisher quotes O’Reilly – ‘the guy who has the most data, wins‘. Will OpenStreetMap be able to compete against the power of Google when it comes to data collection?
Whatever the arguments for or against a certain mapping product, perhaps the most important consideration is choice. As long as users continue to have a choice of map products and are aware of the implications, restrictions and limitations of the products they use, then there should be room for both approaches to the provision of map services.
A recent article in Sensors & Systems: Making Sense of Global Change raised key issues regarding challenges and considerations in geospatial data integration. Author Robert Pitts of New Light Technologies recognizes that the increased availability of data presents opportunities for improving our understanding of the world, but combining diverse data remains a challenge due to several reasons. I like the way he cuts through the noise and captured the key analytical considerations, which we address in our book entitled, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data. These include coverage, quality, compatibility, geometry type and complexity, spatial and temporal resolution, confidentiality, and update frequency.
In today’s world of increasingly available data, and ways to access that data, integrating data sets to create decision-making dashboards for policymakers may seem like a daunting task–much worse than that term paper you were putting off writing until the last minute. However, breaking down integration tasks into the operational considerations that Mr. Pitts identifies may help the geospatial and policymaking communities make progress toward the overall goal. These operational considerations include access method, format and size of data, data model and schema, update frequency, speed and performance, and stability and reliability.
Fortunately, as Mr. Pitts points out, “operational dashboards” are appearing that help decision makers work with geospatial data in diverse contexts and scales. These include the US Census Bureau’s “On the Map for Emergency Management“, based on Google tools and the Florida State Emergency Response Team’s Geospatial Assessment Tool for Operations and Response (GATOR) based on ArcGIS Online technology, shown here.
As we discuss in our book and in this blog, portals or operational dashboards will not by themselves ensure that better decisions will be made. I see two chief challenges with these dashboards and make the following recommendations: (1) Make sure that those who create them are not simply putting something up quickly to satisfy an agency mandate. Rather, those who create them need to understand the integration challenges listed above as they build the dashboard. Furthermore, since the decision-makers are likely not to be geospatial professionals who understand scale, accuracy, and so on, the creators of these dashboards need to communicate the above considerations in an understandable way to those using the dashboards. (2) Make sure that the dashboards are maintained and updated. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that we are blunt in our criticism about portals that may be well-intentioned but are out of date and/or are extremely difficult to use. For example, the US Census dashboard that I analyzed above contained emergencies that were three months old, despite the fact that I had checked the current date box for my analysis.
Take a look around at our world. We need to incorporate geospatial technologies in decision making across the private sector, nonprofit organizations, and in government, at all levels and scales. It is absolutely critical that geospatial tools and data are placed into the hands of decision makers for the benefit of all. Progress is being made, but it needs to happen at a faster pace through the effort of the geospatial community as well as key decision makers working together.
GeoLytix, a UK-based data provider and consultancy company, have recently released a UK Census Data pack free of charge. The data pack has been made available under the same terms as the source data collected by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), The National Records of Scotland (NRS) and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NIRSA) and is released under the Open Government License (OGL). The data are available at Output Area level, the lowest geographical level at which census estimates are provided. Each output area is ‘... designed to be socially homogeneous and spatially compact and contiguous‘. Output areas are also limited by population and household: at least 40 households/100 individuals in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 20 households/50 individuals in Scotland.
The data pack contains 197 variables covering 21 themes: 15 themes relating to people (age, status, gender, travel to work and so on) and 6 themes relating to households (including type, size, access to cars).