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Geospatial Data Integration Challenges and Considerations

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.

Florida's GATOR disaster assessment tool

Florida’s GATOR disaster assessment dashboard.

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.

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