Search Results

Keyword: ‘free gis’

Evaluating GIS costs and benefits

August 28, 2017 1 comment

One of the themes in our book and this blog is to carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of geospatial data.  This should be considered if you are a consumer of data, and are debating whether to purchase data that may be “cleaned up”, thereby saving you time, or to download a free “pre-processed” version of that data, which saves you up-front money but may require quite a few hours or your time or your staff’s time.  However, a data producing organization should also evaluate costs and benefits when they decide how to serve it, and if and how to charge for it.

Chapter 4 of our book delves into these questions: “What is the true cost and value of spatial data?  How can the cost and value of spatial data be measured?  How do the policies determining cost and access ultimately affect the availability, quality, and use of spatial data?”

Other resources might be helpful:  One of my favorite pieces is this essay from Geospatial World on the Economic Value of Geospatial Data–The Great Enabler as is this economic studies for GIS operations document from NSGIC.  A series of 10 case studies are summarized in an e-book from Esri entitled Return on Investment, and here is the results of research of 82 cost-benefit assessments across multiple countries.  One of my favorite “benefits from GIS implementation” pieces is this recent brief but pointed document from Ozaukee County.  A dated but still solid chapter on this topic from Obermeyer is here, with a case study in Ghana here.  The economic impact infographic that has probably received the most attention is from Oxera’s well-done “Economic impact of Geo Services” study.


The top of the “Economic Impact of Geo Services” infographic from Oxera’s study.

What are your thoughts?  Should organizations still be charging for data in the 21st Century?  Should all geospatial data be open for anyone to use?  How should organizations pay for the creation and curation of geospatial data as the audience and uses for that data continue to expand?  Once geospatial data services are online, how can they best be updated and curated?

GIS and the Top 10 Technology Trends

January 17, 2016 1 comment

Recently, information technology research and advisory company Gartner listed what it considers to be the Top 10 technology trends for 2016.  This insightful article, when considered in light of recent GIS developments, shows that these tech trends are both influenced by and are reflected by geotechnologies.  Whether or not you agree that the 10 trends listed here are the “most influential,” please consider their connections to GIS.  The first trend, The Digital Mesh, refers to “all devices are connected in an expanding set of endpoints people use to access applications and information, or interact with people, social communities, governments and businesses.”  GIS and GPS technologies are enabling the connections to occur, and conversely, influence the direction that GIS will go.

One manifestation of how the Digital Mesh is driving GIS is the attention over the past few years on building GIS apps.  If you would like to learn more about building your own GIS apps, consider enrolling in the free 5 week Esri MOOC “Do-it-yourself Geo Apps.“, by signing up for a free developer’s account on ArcGIS Online, or by building some of your own web apps such as with this tool.

Other trends include the “information of everything” and big data, and we’ve written about Big Data several times as well in this blog since 2012. Adaptive security architecture is another trend, developed in response to privacy breaches, and we’ve written about location privacy here and in our book.  We have also reflected about The Internet of Things, which through the sensor network is enabling GIS to become a sort of “nervous system of the planet.”  In fact, it is difficult to think of any of the trends identified without being able to identify numerous connections to GIS.


For those in the geotechnology community, it is important to stay current with the latest technology trends and reflect upon how those trends impact GIS.  This Gartner article will help.

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

March 8, 2015 2 comments

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.

Arguments for Free and Open Data from Local Governments

April 28, 2014 2 comments

The Minneapolis St Paul regional GIS council (MetroGIS) conducted research that was in part based on a policy call to individual counties in their metropolitan area for free and open data.  The results, reported here, along with related links and publications, provide excellent information about the current state of free and open data in the GIS council’s region.  More importantly, beyond this particular metropolitan area, the documents include succinct and compelling arguments for the benefits to any local government in making its data open and freely available.  These include transparency of operations, improved public service, ease of data access, savings in terms of staff time, meeting public demand, improved inter-agency work relationships, and faster decision making.  It fits into the notion of data as an important component of public infrastructure, created to serve the public good, and fundamental to wise decision making.

Making Public Data Open and Freely Available:  Key Themes

Making Public Data Open and Freely Available: Key Themes and Benefits.

This MetroGIS site is also of value because it provides a resolution for support for free and open public geospatial data, a sample letter of support, and links to related articles and publications.  In short, the MetroGIS staff provides insight to the decisions that have brought their organization to this point.  The results of their research is of great assistance to those grappling with whether and how to serve their own spatial data.

In the related resources provided, that may be of particular interest to the readers of the Spatial Reserves blog, includes NSGIC President Ivan Weichert’s essay This Isn’t Private Informationon locational privacy, arguing that if some privacy issues are enacted, it would destroy the government’s ability to conduct its business, and negatively affect government and commercial services that citizens expect and demand. Another item of interest is Brian Timoney’s The Flawed Economics of Closed Government Datawhere, in his usual straightforward style, he argues against the “cost recovery” model for government agency provision of data.

Free versus fee

In The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data we devoted one chapter to a discussion of the Free versus Fee debate: Should spatial data be made available for free or should individuals, companies and government organisations charge for their data? In a recently published article Sell your data to save the economy and your future the author Jaron Lanier argues that a ‘monetised information economy‘, where information is a commodity that is traded to the advantage of both the information provider and the information collector, is best way forward.

Lanier argues that although the current movement for making data available for free has become well established, with many arguing that it has the potential for democratising the digital economy through access to open software, open spatial data, open education resources and the like, insisting that data is available for free will ultimately mean a small digital elite will thrive at the expense of the majority. Data, and the information products derived from them, are the new currency in the digital age and those who don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of this source of re-enumeration will lose out. Large IT companies with the best computing facilities, who collect and re-use our information, will be the winners with their ‘big data‘ crunching computers ‘... guarded like oilfields‘.

In one vision of an alternative information economy, people would be paid when data they made available via a network were accessed by someone else. Could selling the data that are collected by us, and about us, be a viable option and would it give us more control over how the data are used? Or is the open approach to data access and sharing the best way forward?

Free population distribution data for Asia and Africa

October 29, 2012 1 comment

Due to a lack of mapping resources and difficulties in obtaining census statistics for many Asian countries, the AsiaPop project was set up in July 2011 to produce detailed and freely available population distribution maps for the whole of Asia. The project recently announced the next release of population distribution datasets for 17 Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, Nepal, North and South Korea and Tajikistan. The data, available in GeoTIFF  format, are available to download for free (subject to registration) and provide population count data (persons per square) for 2010 and 2015.

South eastern Cambodia population density data

A combination of high-resolution (100m) settlement maps derived from satellite imagery and land cover maps were used to reallocate contemporary census-based population data, producing more accurate national cover than had been previously available. The datasets are used to measure the impact of population growth, monitoring change and as a basis for future development strategies.

A related project was established in Africa in 2009 (, also providing free population count data (in Esri FLOAT format).

Population density data for West Africa

AmeriPop, started in Oct 2012, aims to provide similar data for Central and South America (

Reflections on Why Open Data is not as Simple as it Seems article

December 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Sabine de Milliano, in a relevant and thoughtful article in the GIS Professional newsletter entitled “Why Open Data is Not as Simple as it Seems,” eloquently raises several issues that have been running through this Spatial Reserves blog for the past five years.  She also raises concerns that have been in just about every data and GIS conference for the same amount of time to a new level. Rather than camping on the statement, “open data is great” and leaving it at that, Ms. de Milliano points out that “open data is much more complicated than simply collaborating on work and sharing results to help humanity move forward”.  She recognizes the “common good” of collaboration and innovation, and the transparency that results from open data. She states that access to open data is “only possible by solving the sum of technological, economic, political, and communication challenges.” Indeed.

In this blog and in our book, we have written extensively about the “fee vs. free” discussions that debate whether government agencies should charge for their data, and Ms. de Milliano sums up arguments on both sides. But she goes further and says that challenges to open data range from “ethical to practical”, and that there is a “large grey zone on what data should actually be shared and what should remain private.” What if someone creates a map based on your open data and someone else makes a fatal decision based on an error in this derivative product? Who is accountable?

For Ms. de Milliano, the biggest challenge of open data is discoverability and accessibility. She mentions open data portals including the Copernicus Open Access Hub, Natural Earth Data, USGS Earth Explorer, and the Esri ArcGIS Hub, and we have written about many others in this blog, such as here and here.  Ms. de Milliano holds an impressive set of GIS credentials and makes her points in an understandable and actionable manner.  Her article also points out that despite the advent of open data, some datasets remain “knowledge intensive”, meaning that only a limited number of users have sufficient technical background to understand how to process, analyze, and use them (such as SAR data) and therefore, they remain the domain of experts. I frequently touch on this point when I am teaching GIS workshops and courses, beginning with the thesis: “Despite data and technical advancements in GIS over the past 25 years, GIS is not easy. It requires technical expertise AND domain expertise.”  Effective use of GIS requires the user to be literate in what I see as three legs making up “geoliteracy”–content knowledge, skills, and the geographic perspective. I do not see skills as solely those of acquiring more competency in geotechnologies, but rather including equally important skills in critical thinking, dealing with data, being ethical, being organized, being a good communicator, and other skills.

Article about open data

Sabine de Milliano’s article about open data touches on many of the themes in this blog and in our book in an eloquent and thought-provoking way.

Categories: Public Domain Data

Data Quality on Live Web Maps

June 19, 2017 3 comments

Modern web maps and the cloud-based GIS tools and services upon which they are built continue to improve in richness of content and in data quality.  But as we have focused on many times in this blog and in our book, maps are representations of reality.  They are extremely useful representations, to be sure, particularly so in the cloud, but still are representations.   These representations are dependent upon the data sources, accuracy standards, map projections, completeness, processing and rendering procedures used, regulations and policies in place, and much more.  A case in point are offsets between street data and the satellite image data that I noticed in mid-2017 in Chengdu in south-central China.  The streets are about 369 meters southeast of where they appear on the satellite image (below):


Puzzled, I panned the map to other locations in China.  The offsets varied, but they appeared everywhere in the country; for example, note the offset of 557 meters where a highway crosses the river at Dongyang, again to the southeast:


As of this writing, the offset appears in the same cardinal direction and only in China; indeed; After examining border towns with North Korea, Vietnam, and other countries, the offset appears to stop along those borders.  No offsets exist in Hong Kong nor in Macao.  Yahoo Maps Bing Maps both show the same types of offsets in China (Bing maps example, below):


MapQuest, which uses an OpenStreetMap base, showed no offset.  I then tested ArcGIS Online with a satellite image base and the OpenStreetMap base, and there was no offset there, either (below).  This offset is a datum issue related to national security that is documented in this Wikipedia article.  The same data restriction issues that we discuss in our book and in our blog touch on other aspects of geospatial data, such as fines for unauthorized surveys, lack of geotagging information on many cameras when the GPS chip detects a location within China, and seeming unlawfulness of crowdsourced mapping efforts such as OpenStreetMap.

But furthermore, as we have noted, the satellite images are processed tiled and data sets, and like other data sets, they need to be critically scrutinized as well.  They should not be considered “reality” despite their appearance of being the “actual” Earth’s surface.  They too contain error, may have been taken on different dates or seasons, may be reprojected on a different datum, and other data quality aspects need to be considered.


Another difference between these maps is the wide variation in the amount of detail in terms of the streets data in China.  The OpenStreetMap was the most complete; the other web mapping platforms offered a varying level of detail; some of which were seriously lacking, surprisingly especially in the year 2017, in almost every type of street except major freeways.  The streets content was much more complete in other countries.

It all comes back to identifying your end goals in using any sort of GIS or mapping package.  Being critical of the data can and should be part of the decision making process that you use and the choice of tools and maps to use.  By the time you read this, the image offset problem could have been resolved.  Great!  But are there now new issues of concern? Data sources, methods, and quality vary considerably among different countries. Furthermore, the tools and data change frequently, along with the processing methods, and being critical of the data is not just something to practice one time, but rather, fundamental to everyday work with GIS.

A Top 10 List of Useful Geospatial Data Portals

January 29, 2017 6 comments

We have been writing this geospatial data column since 2012, when our book The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, was published.  Over the 5 years that have elapsed, in addition to keeping issues such as data quality, copyright, privacy, and fee vs. free at the forefront of the conversation, we have tested and reviewed many geospatial data portals.  Some of these portals promise more than they deliver, some have been frustrating, but some have been extremely valuable in GIS work.  We have decided to list 10 of those that we have found most useful, rich with content, easy to use, and with metadata that is available and understandable.  In considering such a list, we realize that “most useful” really depends on the application that one is using GIS for, but the following sites should be useful for users in many disciplines. Some allow for data to be streamed from web servers into your GIS software, and all allow data to be downloaded.

  1.  The FAO GeoNetwork.  This portal contains global to regional scale data from administrative  boundaries and agriculture to soils, population, land use, and water resources.
  2.  The Esri Living Atlas of the World is an expanding, curated set of data and maps on thousands of topics that can be used and also contributed to by the GIS community.
  3. The European Space Agency’s Sentinel Online data portal includes a wide variety of image-related data sets on the five themes of land, marine, atmosphere, emergency, and security.
  4. CIESIN at Columbia University has been serving data for over 20 years on climate, population, soil, econonics, land use, biodiversity, and other themes, including its Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC).
  5. The Global Land Cover Facility at the University of Maryland remains one of the best and easiest to use sources and methods to obtain Landsat, MODIS, Aster, SRTM, and other satellite imagery.
  6. The Atlas of the Biosphere serves global data, largely in grid format, of human impact, land use, ecosystems, and water resources themes.
  7. Natural Earth is a public domain dataset at small scale (1:10,000,000, 1:50,000,000, and 1:110,000,000) for the globe, in vector and raster formats that are easily ingestible in GIS software.
  8. The World Resources Institute hosts a variety of data geospatial data sets for specific areas of the world, such as Kenya and Uganda.
  9. The GIS Data Depot from the GeoCommunity is one of the oldest data depositories, dating back to the 1990s, but still very useful for international and USA specific data on such themes as elevation, transportation, imagery, scanned topographic maps, and hydrography, many of which have been re-served from more-difficult-to-use government sites.
  10. There have been many “lists of data sites” over the years, and these invariably are not kept up to date and end up being less useful over time.  However, those that are still quite helpful that we have reviewed are Dr Karen Payne’s list from the University of Georgia, and Robin Wilson’s list of free spatial data.  A few others that are useful are this list from the USGS that I started back when I worked there, and this list from Stanford University.

A few selected others are also useful that “almost make the top 10” above are  The National Map from the USGS, from the US Government, environmental and population data from TerraPopulus, Diva-GIS’s data layers for each country, the UNEP Environmental Data Explorer, the NEO site at NASA Earth Observations, and OpenStreetMap.

For more details on any of these resources, search the Spatial Reserves blog for our reviews, remain diligent about being critical of the data you are considering using, and as always, we welcome your feedback.


A Top 10 List of Useful Geospatial Data Portals.