In this blog and in our book, we have reviewed many geospatial data portals. One of the oldest and yet most useful of all regional or state portals is that of the Texas Natural Resources Information System, or TNRIS. Indeed, TNRIS predated digital spatial data, for it was founded in 1968, housing paper topographic and geologic maps and aerial photographs for years before hosting digital spatial data. TNRIS allows searches by county or by data theme. If one zooms in on a the statewide map with county boundaries, the familiar USGS 7.5-minute grid is displayed, from which one can download such data as digital raster graphics, elevation, wetlands, geology, and historical and current satellite imagery. Statewide themes include bathymetry, land cover, soils, census data, transportation, and many others. Metadata is not only available but it is conveniently packaged, and the site doesn’t burden the data user with needless frills and fancy ways to download–it is, in my view, what a data portal should be–with the ability to quickly go in and get what one needs, in a variety of formats.
As GIS technologies have evolved, the TNRIS portal has evolved as well. One of the most innovative and useful sections of their site is its online mapping services. Here, high resolution imagery (30 cm in many places), land cover, and other themes are hosted as ArcGIS services and OGC WMS services. The site conveniently enables the data user to preview the services on their website or to copy the URL for the service so that it may be used in ArcGIS Online. Therefore, not everything from TNRIS needs to be downloaded–a growing amount can be streamed.
Texas is an excellent location for other useful data portals as well: The General Land Office hosts data on habitat, minerals, oil and gas, and other themes. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality hosts data on air and water quality, toxic hazards, and other layers. Texas Parks and Wildlife hosts data on bays, ecosystems, trails, and wildlife management areas. And other gems exist, such as the railroads and other data hosted by Entergy on the Texas Site Selection Center.
A section of the Texas Natural Resources Information Systems geospatial data portal.
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.
- The FAO GeoNetwork. This portal contains global to regional scale data from administrative boundaries and agriculture to soils, population, land use, and water resources.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- The Atlas of the Biosphere serves global data, largely in grid format, of human impact, land use, ecosystems, and water resources themes.
- 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.
- The World Resources Institute hosts a variety of data geospatial data sets for specific areas of the world, such as Kenya and Uganda.
- 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.
- 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, data.gov 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.
We wrote extensive reviews of local, regional, state, provincial, national, and international government data portals in our book and from time to time do so in this blog. One of the finest state geospatial data portals in our judgment is the Montana Digital Atlas.
We have been critical here and in our book about data portals that were obviously set up simply to satisfy some organizational mandate without regard to those who will actually use the data portal. I have spent time with the MAGIP (Montana Association of Geographic Information Professionals) community, and most recently was honored to give the keynote at their annual conference. I am happy to report that they have built their data portal with the end user in mind. What’s more, the Montana State Library has been a leader in the GIS community there for years, and I have found that when library information professionals are involved–people who really understand data–their resources will be extensive, the metadata will be rich, and the services are actually going to work.
The Digital Atlas features geographic databases, aerial photos, and topographic maps of lands in Montana. The functions begin with an interactive map, where you can select base maps, thematic map layers, and tabular data from which you can draw on the screen, generate reports from in XLS and CSV formats, and download in various GIS formats. The site features functionality that I wish all data portals had, such as the ability to move popup boxes to locations most convenient for you, choices on datums and projections for your data, the ability to clip data to specific geographic areas, and the ability to search the state library catalogs for articles, books, and other resources for the area you are investigating. You can even copy the map link to get a web link to the current map that you have created on the site. Furthermore, you can load some of the layers directly from the Montana State Library to ArcGIS Online, via the services in the ‘MSDI_Framework’ and ‘MSL’ folders, on https://gisservicemt.gov/arcgis/rest/services/MSDI_Framework and https://gisservicemt.gov/arcgis/rest/services/MSL.
Lastly, the portal managers graciously say to contact them at MSLDA @ mt.gov if you experience difficulty with the application, if you see a problem with any of the data, or even–and this is wonderful–to suggest additional map layers.
In a white paper entitled Transforming Our World: Geospatial Information Key to Achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, DigitalGlobe and Geospatial Media and Communications tie the need for geospatial data to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
On related topics, we have written about the UN resolution on geospatial data, and the UN Future Trends in geospatial information management, and in our book we wrote about the 8 Millennium Development Goals adopted by UN member states. The white paper brings together some key connections between the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and GIS. The 17 goals include–no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation, and infrastructure, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water, life on land, peace and justice/strong institutions, and partnerships to achieve the goals. The 17 SDGs and the 169 associated targets seek to achieve sustainable development balanced in three dimensions–economic, social, and environmental. The article focuses on a topic that is central to this blog and our book--the need for data, specifically geospatial data, to monitor progress in meeting these goals but also to enable those goals to be achieved.
The report ties the success of the SDGs to the availability of geospatial data. One finding of the report was that many countries had not implemented any sort of open data initiatives or portals, which is an issue we have discussed here and in our book. The main focus of the report is to identify ways that countries and organizations can work on addressing the data gap, such as creating new data avenues, open access, mainstreaming Earth observation, expanding capacities, collaborations and partnerships, and making NSDIs (National Spatial Data Infrastructures) relevant. For more information on the authors of the paper, see this press release by Geospatial World.
I especially like the report because it doesn’t just rest upon past achievements of the geospatial community to make its data holdings available to decision makers To be sure, there have been many achievements. But one thing we have been critical of in this blog in our reviews of some data portals is that many sound fine in press releases, but when a data user actually tries to use them, there are many significant challenges, including site sluggishness, limited data formats and insufficient resolution, and the lack of metadata about field names, to name a few. The report also doesn’t mince words–there have been advancements, but the advancements are not coming fast enough for the decisions that need to be made.
The report’s main message is that the lack of available geospatial data is not just a challenge to people in the geospatial industry doing their everyday work, but that the lack of available geospatial data will hinder the achievement of the SDGs if not addressed fully and soon.
White paper connecting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to geospatial information, from DigitalGlobe and Geospatial Media and Communications.
One of the exercises in our book involves accessing Boulder County Colorado’s GIS site to make decisions about flood hazards. We chose Boulder County for this activity in large part because their data covers a wide variety of themes, is quite detailed, and is easy to download and use. Recently, Boulder County went even further, with the launch of their new geospatial open data platform. This development follows other essays we have written about in this blog about open data, such as the ENERGIC OD, ArcGIS Open Data, EPA flood risk, Australian national map initiative, and open data institute nodes. Other open data nodes are linked to a live web map on the ArcGIS Open Data site.
Accessible here, Boulder County’s open data platform expands the usability of the data, such as providing previews of the data in mapped form and in tabular form. The new platform allows for additional data themes to be accessed; such as the lakes and reservoirs, 2013 flood channel, floodplain, and streams and ditches, all accessible as a result from a search on “hydrography” below. Subsets of large data sets can also be accessed. In addition, the services for each data set are now provided, such as in GeoJSON and GeoService formats, which allows for the data to be streamed directly to such portals such as ArcGIS Online, and thus avoid downloading the data sets altogether.
Why did the county do this? Boulder County says they are “committed to ensuring that geospatial data is as open, discoverable and usable as possible in order to promote community engagement, stimulate innovation and increase productivity.” The county is providing an incredibly useful service to the community through their newest innovative efforts, and I congratulate them. I also hope that more government agencies follow their lead.