Home > Public Domain Data > Fee vs. Free Geospatial Data: Like a Snow Shovel?

Fee vs. Free Geospatial Data: Like a Snow Shovel?

One of my students recently shared something that I considered to be a thought-provoking analogy in the “fee vs. free” geospatial data debate that we included in our book and discuss on this blog.  The debate, in sum, revolves around the issue, “Should government data providers charge a fee for their geospatial data, or should they provide the data for free?”

The student commented, “I tend toward the “at cost” position of the debate for local governments and free side of the debate for federal data. For me, the “tax dollars are used to create the data so it has already been paid for argument” does not hold water. Taxpayers have no expectation (or shouldn’t have) of walking into the local parks department to borrow a shovel that in theory their tax dollars paid for.  The same logic could be applied to spatial assets.”  The student went on to say that the above argument should be applied to local and regional government data, because “federal level data […] tends to be more directly reflective of the population and the federal government more directly benefits from the economic opportunities created by free data.”

While I have tended to advocate on the side that geospatial data should be freely available, I believe that the student’s snow shovel analogy for local governments has merit.  Following this argument, a small fee for data requested that is over and above what that government agency provides on its website seems reasonable.  But I still am firmly on the side of that government providing at least some geospatial data for free on its website, citing the numerous benefits as documented in case studies in this blog and in our book.  These benefits range from positive public relations, saving lives and property in emergency situations, and saving time in processing requests from data users. Consider what one person can do with the snow shovel versus what one person could do with a geospatial data such as a flood dataset.  The shovel might help dredge a small section to help a few neighbors get out of their houses, but the flood dataset could help identify hundreds of houses at risk and provide a permanent, effectively managed solution.  There is an order of magnitude difference in the benefit to be gained from making geospatial data easily and freely available.

What are your thoughts on this important issue?  We invite you to share your thoughts below.

City of Boulder GIS Resources.

City of Boulder GIS Resources.

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  1. March 11, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    Why do the government have this data? Because THEY need it to do their work, it would exist whether or not we/you funded it. Like you say, the tax payers money goes to allowing these people to create data to support their systems. My view is that it should be made available for free for others to use.

  2. Duane Marble
    March 11, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    This discussion seems to imply that there is only one shovel and one data set and that is not the case since multiple copies of the database are easily available. The supply of shovels does not work that way.

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