Posts Tagged ‘Government’

Excellent Example of Metadata on a GIS Portal: City of Cambridge

December 28, 2014 1 comment

The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the opposite side of the St Charles River from Boston, Massachusetts, USA, is home to over 107,000 people, some prestigious universities such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and numerous cultural and physical amenities.  The city is exemplary with regards to how it serves spatial data to the GIS community and to the general public.  The city’s GIS portal includes a map gallery of traffic, history, watersheds, community development,  elections, wireless access, and other themes that are viewable online, downloadable, and many of which are viewable on a mobile device.  One unique and interesting mobile map is the “street trees walking app” that allows a person to identify the type of tree species that are nearby as they walk through the streets of Cambridge.  The city’s GIS portal includes numerous interactive maps in their CityViewer utility, including a historical viewer dating back to 1947 with imagery and 1865 with maps.  GIS data downloads are one of the richest data sets I have seen from any local government, with over 60 layers on infrastructure, public safety, hydrography, topography, health, demographics, and much more.

One of the unique features of the city’s GIS portal is the use of a story map.  The story map was created because, in the words of its creators, “The city has all of these great programs and offerings but they aren’t necessarily advertised in the most efficient manner, and the information isn’t always easily accessible.”  Besides showing the public where the city services are located, a side benefit for the GIS community is that the story map itself is a thorough and compelling tutorial of how to build your own story map.

Last but not least, the data dictionary for the City of Cambridge GIS is extremely thorough and easy to use, providing shapefiles and file geodatabases.  The dictionary contains information on how and why a GIS layer was created, the city’s procedure for maintaining each layer, departments that contribute to the development of each layer, history, and the intended use of the data.  The metadata even includes what some dictionaries leave out–a thorough description of the attributes and how the attributes are defined.

In our book, we discuss the costs and benefits of local governments serving their spatial data to the GIS community and to the public.  The City of Cambridge has gone to great effort to make their data interesting, relevant, and easy to find and use to a broad spectrum of data users.

City of Cambridge Map Viewer:  1947 Aerial Photograph with parcels.

City of Cambridge Map Viewer: 1947 Aerial Photograph with parcels.


High-resolution SRTM elevation data to be released globally

October 12, 2014 1 comment
Comparing SRTM data resolutions

Comparing SRTM data spatial resolution:  90 meters on the left, 30 meters on the right.

High-resolution elevation data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission-Level 2 (SRTM-2), previously only available for the USA, will be made publicly available over the next 12 months, the White House announced recently at the United Nations Heads of State Climate Summit. The first elevation data set to be released will be over the African continent and is available on the United States Geological Survey’s Earth Explorer website, by choosing the “SRTM 1 Arc-Second Global” data set, with future regions to be released within the coming year.

“I look forward to the broader impact that the release will have on the global scientific and capacity building community,” said National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Director Letitia Long.  Until now, SRTM data was only publicly available at a lower 90-meter resolution (see above image). The newly-released global 30-meter SRTM-2 dataset will be used worldwide to improve environmental monitoring, climate change research including sea-level rise impact assessments, and local decision support, the White House said.

The SRTM mission began in 2000 as a venture between NASA and NGA that used a modified radar system on board the Space Shuttle Endeavour to acquire elevation data for over 80% of the Earth’s land mass. The Department of Defense and intelligence community continues to use this topographic data for multiple applications – from developing navigation tools and supporting military operations, to geological and environmental purposes.  In August 2014, Long authorized the removal of the Limited Distribution caveat from the SRTM-2 dataset, making it available to the public on a phased-release schedule. The 30-meter topographic dataset was then sent to USGS for public distribution.

When I heard Shuttle pilot Dom Gorie speak about his work with the SRTM at a GIS conference about 10 years ago, it was one of the most memorable keynote addresses I have ever heard.  I look forward to investigating this new data set and the delivery mechanism.  Keep an eye on this blog for further updates.


Drones: A new voluntary code of practice

July 28, 2014 1 comment

Last year we wrote about some of the privacy concerns being raised with respect to the operation of commercial drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Despite the many actual and potential beneficial uses of drones in search and rescue, emergency response (for example, Typhoon Haiyan), farming and in retail (Amazon’s Prime Air program), persistent fears about government surveillance and snooping neighbours continue unabated.

Drone. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Drone. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Politico recently reported on a new voluntary code of practice being developed by the Obama administration for owners and operators of commercial drones. Although the FAA in the United States has authority over the operation of drones near airports, there is no national policy covering commercial drone operations and no formal rules governing what type of data can be collected by drones.

With the cost of drones continuing to come down, and the number of small and independent drone operators continuing to rise, technological innovation has once again raced ahead of the legislation governing its use. Given that there are so many commercial and private sector operators either preparing to use or actively using drones, it remains to be seen if a voluntary code of practice will be effective in managing drone use and addressing legitimate privacy concerns or if government regulation is the only solution.



Australian National Map Open Data initiative launched

July 14, 2014 1 comment

Following on from last week’s post on the National Atlas and changes to the National Map in the USA, The Australian Government has recently announced the National Map Open Data Initiative to provide improved access to publicly available government datasets. A beta version of the National Map website, hosted by NICTA (Australia’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Research Centre of Excellence), is now available and provides map-based access to a variety of Australian spatial data from government agencies including the Bureau of Meteorology, the Bureau of Statistics and The currently available data themes include:

  • Broadband – availability and quality across Australia
  • Land – including cover, geology and earthquake hazards
  • Transport – roads, railways, foot tracks
  • Infrastructure – waste management, wind pumps, mines and wells
  • Groundwater – aquifers, salinity


Developed on an open source platform, the National Map site will ultimately be hosted by Geoscience Australia when it goes into full production later on in 2014.

Visitors to the site can load their own data, either as a data file or WMS/WFS service, or download data (supported formats include GeoJSON, KML, KMZ and CSV) subject to the licensing arrangements of the data providers.

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.

A bill to establish the National Geospatial Technology Administration

March 16, 2014 1 comment

A legislative hearing was recently held to establish the National Geospatial Technology Administration within the United States Geological Survey to “enhance the use of geospatial data, products, technology, and services, to increase the economy and efficiency of Federal geospatial activities” and for other purposes.  The associated proposed bill, H.R. 1604, is to improve federal land management by requiring the Secretary of the Interior to develop a multipurpose cadastre of Federal real property and identify “inaccurate, duplicate, and out-of-date Federal land inventories, and for other purposes.”  For the full text of these bills, see this link at the Library of Congress.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the “plain language” title of the bill, which is “Map It Once, Use It Many Times”, I am wary of yet another administrative body created that is concerned about spatial data.  I have great respect for the USGS as a former employee but wonder how it would accomplish this with their limited staff resources.  But I am at the same time hopeful that if enacted, that this would serve to improve decision making at all levels of government, academia, nonprofit organizations, and in private enterprise by the coordination and dissemination of geospatial data.  In particular, as Jill Clark and I have written about in this blog and in our book, if some useful data portals could be established, and in particular, a reworking and expansion of the National Map portal, we would, in a word, rejoice.

The bill details 10 data layers to be included in a “national geospatial database”.  I was encouraged by seeing text in the bill allowing for acquiring data from commercial sources as I think that partnerships are critical.  I wonder how such data could be distributed to GIS analysts and if so, the cost and any restrictions in doing so.  I also liked seeing the language in the bill that encourages private enterprise, and also that which encouraged geospatial research and development.  Also encouraging was the hearing (included in the link above) on H.R. 916 to improve federal land management and conservation by identifying inaccurate or duplicate federal land inventories.  Time will tell, and these two bills are worth keeping track of.

Legislative hearing on geospatial bill

Legislative hearing on geospatial bill to establish the National Geospatial Technology Administration within the USGS.

Review of US Federal GIS Activities from Government Accountability Office

February 17, 2014 3 comments

The Government Accountability Office has updated its review of federal GIS activities.  The study was conducted because “The federal government collects, maintains, and uses geospatial information–information linked to specific geographic locations–to support many functions, including national security and disaster response. In 2012, the Department of the Interior estimated that the federal government was investing billions of dollars on geospatial data annually, and that duplication was common.”

GAO Report on Reducing Duplication and Prioritizing Coordination

GAO Report on Reducing Duplication and Prioritizing Coordination

The report said that, “The President and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)  established policies and procedures for coordinating investments in geospatial data. However, in November 2012, GAO reported that governmentwide committees and federal departments and agencies had not effectively implemented them. The committee that was established to promote the coordination of geospatial data nationwide–the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC)–had developed and endorsed key standards and had established a clearinghouse of metadata. GAO found that the clearinghouse was not being used by agencies to identify planned geospatial investments to promote coordination and reduce duplication. In addition, the committee had not yet fully planned for or implemented an approach to manage geospatial data as related groups of investments to allow agencies to more effectively plan geospatial data collection efforts and minimize duplicative investments, and its strategic plan was missing key elements.”

“Other shortfalls have impaired progress in coordinating geospatial data. Specifically, none of the three federal departments in GAO’s review had fully implemented important activities such as preparing and implementing a strategy for advancing geospatial activities within their respective departments. Moreover, the agencies in GAO’s review responsible for governmentwide management of specific geospatial data had implemented some but not all key activities for coordinating the national coverage of specific geospatial data.”

“GAO is making no new recommendations in this statement. In November 2012, GAO recommended that to improve coordination and reduce duplication, FGDC develop a national strategy for coordinating geospatial investments; federal agencies follow federal guidance for managing geospatial investments; and OMB develop a mechanism to identify and report on geospatial investments. Since that time, FGDC and several agencies have taken some steps to implement the recommendations. However, additional actions are still needed.”

Why are we not surprised?  To be fair, coordinating any activity among federal agencies, particularly one as pervasive and cross-cutting as geospatial data collection and use, is an enormous task.  Furthermore, coordination cannot be established and then just placed on “auto pilot”, but needs to be continually improved and adjusted with changing needs, stakeholders, priorities, and decision makers.  On the other hand, the goal of coordination of federal geospatial activities has been a goal for 20 years now, since the signing of the NSDI back in 1994.  We discuss the progress made and the challenges that are still outstanding at length in our book, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data.  It is disheartening to read that so much remains to be done but encouraging to see at least some progress and reports like this one to keep coordination moving forward.

Categories: Public Domain Data Tags: ,

Open Government Data book by Joshua Tauberer

February 2, 2014 1 comment

An online e-book entitled Open Government Data by Joshua Tauberer is, according to the author, “the culmination of several years of thinking about the principles behind the open government data movement in the United States.”  In the book, he “frame[s] the movement as the application of Big Data to civics. Topics include principles, uses for transparency and civic engagement, a brief legal history, data quality, civic hacking, and paradoxes in transparency.”

The author is the creator of the US Congress-tracking tool, which launched in 2004, helping to spur the national open government data community. He was also a co-founder of POPVOX, a platform for advocacy, providing a means for citizens to communicate with Congress about the issues they care about.

Tauberer mentions GIS data in part 2.2 where he uses Google Transit Feed Specification data as an example (three-quarters of the way down the page, in Figure 8) to visualize ridership in the Washington DC area.  But despite the lack of overt GIS references, I believe this book could be useful to the readers of our book and this blog.  Its chapters include “Big Data Meets Open Government”, “Civic Hacking by Example”, “Applications to Open Government”, “A Brief Legal History of Open Government Data”, “Paradoxes in Open Government”, and “Example Policy Language”.  In particular, the chapter on “A Brief Legal History of Open Government Data” provides useful additional reading after reading Chapter 1 of our book, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data.  Through reading Tauberer’s book, one can better understand how spatial data can and should fit into larger open data and open government initiatives.

Open Government Data book

Open Government Data book.

Geospatial Data Integration Challenges and Considerations

January 20, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

Exploring the US Interagency Elevation Inventory

December 22, 2013 1 comment

The US Interagency Elevation Inventory offers the ability to display and download topographic and bathymetric data for the USA.  A collaborative effort from NOAA, USGS, and FEMA, the resource contains DEM, Lidar, IFSAR, hydrographic surveys, and multibeam and Lidar bathymetric data.

The site hosts have done a decent job populating the metadata, including vertical accuracy, point spacing, and data collection, and the inventory contains a good variety of data types and formats.  To get started, visit the link above and then “Launch the Viewer.”

In my case illustrated below, I was searching for Lidar data for the area around Meteor Crater, Arizona.  After finding it, I was then placed on Open Topography’s site at SDSC for the whole country, requiring me to select my desired area in Arizona again on this new map.  Oddities like this are common to federal data portals, as we document in our book.  Despite this, the US Interagency Elevation Inventory is a useful resource for elevation data.  

Downloading elevation data from Elevation Inventory.

Downloading elevation data from Elevation Inventory.

How might you be able to use this resource?  We look forward to hearing your reflections.