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Possible Changes to NAIP Imagery Licensing Model

November 27, 2017 Leave a comment

As this blog and our book make clear, the world of geospatial data is in a continual state of change.  Much of this change has been toward more data in the public domain, but sometimes, the change may move in the opposite direction. The National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) has been a source for aerial imagery in the USA since 2003 and has been in the public domain, available here.  But recently, the Farm Services Agency (FSA) has proposed to move the data model from the public domain to a licensing model.  The collection of this imagery has been under an innovative model wherein state governments and the federal government share the costs.

One reason for the proposed change is that the states have been $3.1 million short over the past several years, and FSA cannot continue “picking up the tab.”  Furthermore, delays in releasing funding from cost-share partners forces contract awards past “peak agriculture growth” season, which thwarts one key reason why the imagery is collected in the first place–to assess agricultural health and practices.  We have discussed this aspect of geospatial data frequently in this blog–that geospatial data comes at a cost.  Someone has to pay, and sometimes, those payment models need to be re-considered with changing funding and priorities.  In this case, agencies and data analysts that rely on NAIP imagery would suffer adverse consequences, but with the expansion of the types and means by which imagery can be acquired nowadays, perhaps these developments will enable those other sources to be explored more fully.  And, possibly, the model could be adjusted so that the data could be paid for and that all could benefit from it.

For more information, see the report by our colleagues at GIS Lounge, and the presentation housed on the FGDC site, here.

Two samples of NAIP imagery, for Texas, left, and North Dakota, right.

Potential Harm to Rare Species from Location-Tagged Data

November 20, 2017 1 comment

In a new study from Yale University entitled “Unnatural Surveillance: How Online Data Is Putting Species at Risk,”  author Adam Welz sounds an alarm about harm that can come from the fact that location information is increasingly tied to data.  In the case of rare and endangered plants and animals, Welz points out that “poachers can use computers and smartphones to pinpoint the locations of rare and endangered species and then go nab them.”   The case highlighted in the article is one of a couple who had been illegally gathering rare African succulent plants after doing research on the location of the plants, and then illegally selling the plants through their own website.  In the past it may have taken perhaps an entire botanical career to gather information on this level of specificity, but “in 2015, a pair of poachers could acquire it in a short time from a desk on another continent.”  Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case, and Welz should know:  He has long focused on writing about and has extensive experience in international and African wildlife issues.

The author thoughtfully raises other ways, trends, and technologies that expose the location of protected species to those with other motives, such as the increased publishing of scientific research in open access journals, VHF radio signals from animal collars, the rise of citizen science, and even geotagged social media posts from tourists who photograph wildlife.  Welz recognizes the positive impact that the growth of data has had on research and on conservation in particular, but raises awareness of the real danger that location-tagged data can pose to the very things that many seek to study and protect.  As a member of the academic community, I have been working with open access journals for years, and I had not considered the potential misuse of this new publication avenue.

As a long-time member of another community–that of caving, I have for decades been sensitive to the related issue of publishing of cave locations, and the resulting harm that can and has  come from those entering caves without a permit and/or those who would seek to vandalize a cave.  I would love to see a researcher conduct further research on the geospatial implications of the points that Welz raises.   Lacking that, Welz’ article still provides an affirmation of one of our themes of this blog and our book:  What is important is what people do with the data.  Data can be used for good and for ill.  It is my hope that articles such as this raise awareness so that data and tool providers build safeguards that make it difficult for people who seek to use data for ill to access that data, while still moving toward the goals of open data access for enabling smart decisions.

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A review of an article wherein Adam Welz sounds an alarm about harm that can come from the fact that location information is increasingly tied to data.

The ArcGIS Solutions Templates as a Data Source

November 6, 2017 Leave a comment

“ArcGIS solution templates” located here  are ready-to-use maps and apps targeted for specific industries.  They are grouped into categories according to GIS industry sectors–local government, state government, emergency management, water, electric, gas, defense, telecommunication, and parks and gardens.  These solution templates cover a wide variety of themes and scales.  Under each categories are subcategories, such as land records and water utilities under local government, and transportation and fish and wildlife under state government, and so on.  Another convenient way to browse for the solutions of interest to you is to visit the gallery.  The gallery allows for searching on keywords, industries, products, and implementation patterns (such as field mobility and operational awareness).

Why include these solution templates in our blog as a data source?  Particularly for professors of GIS in universities, and those who conduct GIS training for a wide variety of persons, these templates include sample data.  For example, the electric facility templates include a sample geodatabase with an electric utility network, and a map document used to publish the service territory service.  The Tree Assessor template includes a living plant collection dataset, a map document with defined cartography, a toolbox containing analysis tools, and detailed documentation with details of the map properties.

Admittedly, the primary purpose of these templates is not data, per se, but to help avoid the age-old problem in GIS of requiring each organization to create everything they need from scratch.  The solutions templates provide a practical framework, including maps, graphics, workflows, apps, and much more–for an organization to get started, or if they’ve already started with GIS, to follow some best practices.  But the fact that the templates include data and tools make them an excellent source of data particularly for the GIS instructor.  And, many of the data sets, such as water, parcels, and utilities, are those that typically are difficult to obtain, chiefly because they are not distributed by most data portals.  The solutions templates can also, of course, be used with other data sets that can be found via this blog or via other sources.

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A section of the Esri Solutions Gallery.

Categories: Public Domain Data

A One Stop Shop? A Map and List of all open data portals around the world

October 22, 2017 5 comments

Data company OpenDataSoft has published a map that claims to be a comprehensive list of all open data portals around the world.  Since we in this blog are focused on being critical of data, I wondered if perhaps this map was too good to be true, so I did some investigating.  First, the map lives up to its claim of being straightforward, and is rich with data–thousands of points exist on it.  The text in the pop-up boxes is truncated, requiring the user to click for more, but other than that, the map is easy to navigate.  OpenDataSoft is concerned with data far beyond geospatial data, so it is understandable that the map sometimes points to sites that are not specific to geospatial information, though sometimes they are. For example, the Bismarck North Dakota points list the office of the state government and their data, and not specifically the North Dakota geospatial data portal, but I have no doubt that I could eventually find the geospatial data portal from the main state portal.  However, the point on the map to the north, in Minot, does point to the Ward County open GIS data portal.  Below the map is a very helpful text listing with links to these portals so that the user is not limited to simply searching on a map, which (counterintuitively to some of us in the GIS industry who naturally go for the map first) sometimes can be the slowest way to search.

The OpenDataSoft staff wrote an article explaining how they put together the map, and the article reveals some very interesting coding work and also much manual labor and therefore, dedication.  They are open to feedback from the user community.  As we have written about in the past, the chief challenge with maps and listings like this has always been – who will maintain it in the future?  The site https://opendatainception.io/ allows data users to add a portal to the map, which gives some indication that the site could be in part, crowdsourced.  If so, and if OpenDataSoft is committed to maintaining this resource, it could indeed become a very valued resource for the GIS community.  A map-based way of finding portals makes perfect sense, particularly for the geo-data user.   Whether the map contains your favorite data portal is not as important as what this map represents–the fruits of the open data movement.  I applaud the efforts of OpenDataSoft and encourage them to keep this resource updated.

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Map from OpenDataSoft of “all the open data sites around the world.”

Categories: Public Domain Data

A review of the North Dakota State GIS Portal

October 9, 2017 2 comments

I recently had the honor of co-keynoting the North Dakota GIS conference.  While preparing for the conference, I re-acquainted myself with the North Dakota State GIS portal.  The timing was perfect because a team of dedicated and expert collaborators from many organizations had just completed work on a new portal that replaced their old Hub Explorer resource.  The new portal, accessible here, includes information on how to connect with the state’s GIS community through events and networking.  More germane to our topic in this blog, though, it also contains a link to the data sets themselves via the Hub Data Portal.   The portal is thoughtfully laid out, with the ability to view data by content type and topics.  The North Dakota GIS Hub Data Portal uses DKAN, the Drupal-based version of CKAN, the world’s leading open-source open data publishing platform. It provides a complete open source software solution for data publishers, and adheres to the API, data, and functionality standards of CKAN. The goal of this project is to combine the utility of CKAN with the ease of maintenance and extensibility of Drupal.

The portal is designed with the data user in mind:  It doesn’t include a lot of bandwidth-consuming, unnecessary graphics and maps, but allows the user to quickly go to what he or she needs.  The site also provides many options for the data user–the raw data to download, CSVs, HTMLs, XMLs, and even rest endpoints that allow the data to be consumed in web GIS platforms such as ArcGIS Online.  See the example for wildlife management areas here.  And the data sets can be very detailed, too, such as the recent addition of one-foot contours for Bismarck and Mandan.

This portal is unique in that the site includes stories about interesting projects involving people and the land in the state, with links to infographics, maps, and data.  These stories in my opinion provide good “elevator speeches” as to the positive benefits that are derived from the use of GIS, and they also provide good case studies to give students and others ideas for research projects.  The Groups tab gives useful links to “who’s who” in the state.

The site also includes a “Visual ND” site with a rich set of applications, maps, data, documents, and web sites.  The historical aerial photographs of North Dakota are also being scanned, and are available here in TIFF format.  It is my hope that these photos will eventually have REST endpoints that will allow them to be displayed directly into ArcGIS Online and other web mapping applications, such as the resource that we reviewed in Iowa, here.

We have reviewed many data portals in our book and on this blog–some good, some not-so-useful.  The North Dakota GIS Hub data portal is one of the most useful I have ever seen.

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The front page of the North Dakota GIS Hub Data Portal.

Categories: Public Domain Data

Era of Big Data is Here: But Caution Is Needed

September 25, 2017 Leave a comment

As this blog and our book are focused on geospatial data, it makes sense that we discuss trends in data–such as laws, standards, attitudes, and tools that gradually helping more users to more quickly find the data that they need.  But with all of these advancements we continue to implore decision makers to think carefully about and investigate the data sources they are using.  This becomes especially critical–and at times difficult–when that data is in the “big data” category.  The difficulty arises when big data is seen as so complex that often it is cited and used in an unquestioned manner.

Equally challenging and at times troublesome is when the algorithms based on that data are unchallenged, and when access to those algorithms are blocked to those who seek to understand who created them and what data and formulas they are based on.  As these data and algorithms increasingly affect our everyday lives, this can become a major concern, as explained in data scientist Cathy O’Neil’s TED talk,  who says “the era of blind faith in big data must end.”

In addition, the ability to gain information from mapping social media is amazing and has potential to help in so many sectors of society.  This was clearly evident with the usefulness of social media posts that emergency managers in Texas and Florida USA mapped during the August-September 2017 hurricanes there.  However, with mapping social media comes an equal if not greater need for caution, as this article that points out the limitations of such data for understanding health and mitigating the flu.  And from a marketing standpoint, Paul Goad cautioned here against relying on data alone.

It is easy to overlook an important point in all this discussion on data, big data, and data science. We tend to refer to these phenomena in abstract terms but these data largely represent us – our lives, our habits, our shopping preferences, our choice of route on the way to work, the companies and organisations we work for and so on. Perhaps less data and data science and more humanity and humanity science.  As Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, has said, “We must remember that technology remains a tool of humanity.  How can we, and corporate giants, then use these big data archives as a tool to serve humanity?”

Understanding your data

Use caution in making decisions from data–even if you’re using “Big Data” and algorithms derived from it.    Photograph by Joseph Kerski. 

Categories: Public Domain Data