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A Call for an Open Spatial Data Infrastructure

In full disclosure, this is a soap-box issue of mine. I’ve long been a vocal advocate of open public data in the geospatial arena.

The “open” provides us all the opportunity to build common spatial data infrastructures so critical to addressing public, private, and broader societal needs. Here I express concern that even with the most open of data, we may yet be compounding vital problems regarding a critical goal of spatial data infrastructures: authoritative and consistent data. Consistency is key, in my humble opinion.

One needs only to look so far as pleas such as in Jonathan Feldman’s recent article “How To Fix The GIS Data Mess” to see how consistent data shared among all potential users is much needed and desired. In my own experience, beyond accuracy and unfettered access to geospatial data, consistency of those data among users is critical. When agencies and organizations rely on geospatial data for critical decision making and those data differ, the decisions based on those data will necessarily differ, notwithstanding the best intentions.

Is it emergency responders and non-profit agencies looking at different authoritative data sources to deploy rescue efforts to your pets and family members? Is it the construction crew, development company, city, and recreational group looking to difference data sources when trails are cleared for that latest building project? Data consistency is vital – for public safety and for the public interest. Consistency (and with it I’m implying shared maintenance) is key to helping control costs.

I am a big fan of efforts such as Open Street Map (OSM) in democratizing geospatial data. This is an effort to be applauded. Clearly the sweeping early success of such effort, particularly in those areas of the world where geospatial data are less public than the US, demonstrates that people are ready and eager to create and support open data sources; I am myself. But I lend a word of caution as well… What do we do when other authoritative data that are open already exist? How do we determine authoritative? How do we share maintenance? These questions remain largely unanswered.

Members of the National States’ Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) are working with public and private organizations at all levels to address these very questions.

In Indiana for example, the community is working together to overcome institutional obstacles and build a statewide spatial data infrastructure that is open and consistent (see the Indiana Geographic Information Council). Local agencies are providing data publicly, such as street centerlines and parcel boundaries, and the state is integrating and publishing rather than duplicating those efforts. The state is contributing as well, not only through coordination and infrastructure, but also with statewide data sets such as aerial photography that make sense to maintain at a broader scale. And the effort doesn’t stop there. With university participation, those data are made public (view and download) through the IndianaMap. They are provided to federal agencies, such as U.S. Census for map modernization. In recognition that not everyone comes to government sources for their decision-making, statewide aerial photography (2005) was shipped to Google and Microsoft to integrate into their map services.

Such a model holds out a glimmer of hope that statewide, national, and international spatial data infrastructures are not only possible, but also within reach. However, even with such open data, when the process is ill-defined and under-funded we may miss the target. How, for instance, will the IndianaMap data be incorporated into other open source efforts the likes of OSM? With a desire by all parties, how might maintenance be addressed? These questions remain unanswered.

We must continue to strive for solutions which focus on process. Consistent data are key in the potential for geospatial data to solve problems at the most local to the most global of scales. While I agree any data may be viewed as better than no data at all, a preponderance of inconsistent data may prove no better with regard to vital issues. There are inherent problems when local data (cities and counties) differ from state data, differ from federal, private, non-profit, and open data. This is where a National Spatial Data Infrastructure is necessary.

The Importance of Map Data Interoperability

Emergency Response Maps

After 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the lack of coordinated information and interoperable communications had tragic consequences. Citizens around the country demanded that government work together to correct otherwise avoidable problems.  Most people have heard about two-way radios in the debate over interoperable communications, but fewer realize the important role digital mapping plays in coordinated information and emergency response.  Digital mapping of government data, utilities, and infrastructure (collectively referred to as “spatial” or “geospatial” information) has become a cornerstone of information management and communication at all levels of government.   However, that spatial information is not yet coordinated across government agencies nor geographical regions.  When an electric crew from Indiana helps restore power after an ice storm in Atlanta, GA, the need for coordinated spatial information is great.  When a 911 cell phone call from an Illinois roadside gets routed to a dispatch center in Iowa,  the need for coordinated spatial information is great.  Similar examples of this need are remarkable and nearly limitless.

All Data Are Local

All data are local – and current sources of nation-wide (or world-wide) map data and services typically do not reflect authoritative (local government) sources of what is locally on the ground. Most sources lack vital information in less populated areas. Most sources take months or years with their data update cycles. (A notable exception is the growing openstreetmap.org, though not “authoritative” this “volunteered” map data making is a difference to emergency response around the world). Building a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) has been a stated goal of the federal government and many geospatial professionals for over a decade.  In those years, many obstacles and delays have prevented the realization of a vision for our nations information infrastructure.  An infrastructure that promises to improve the health, safety and welfare of our citizenry, as well as provide more efficient use of tax payer dollars. By and large, technology is no longer the obstacle – it is human.  The obstacles reflect a resistance to change and fear of the unknown by policy-makers and stewards of local spatial data (How will this change how we do business? How will it affect the privacy of our citizens? Will it reveal we are doing things “wrong”? How will we fund it?  Knowledge is power – will we be giving that up by making our data available to others? Will our own data be used against us?).  But there is also danger in complacency of those responsible for building the NSDI.  As resistance to change takes a strong hold, the status quo becomes more and more comfortable.  Building the NSDI is hard (What if we can’t get cooperation? What if the funding runs short? What if we have technology glitches? How do we keep things running once it is built?). And making the decision to go – not to talk about doing it, but REALLY do it – is difficult.  This assertion is not meant to point fingers, rather it is an effort to remind us all of where our challenges lie – sometimes even within ourselves.  Institutional inertia is strong and personal risk is real for those who challenge long-standing institutional practices.  Those risks, and accompanied inertia, can make the realization of SSDIs and the NSDI even more distant.  As we look to our nations future, we must decide if the NSDI is really what we want (do we really want the NSDI, or do we really want to keep doing what we are doing, supporting our satisfied customers, keep a low profile, keep talking about the vision?).

We Just Decided to Go. (you can too)

Several states are taking the reigns and deciding to go by building complimentary Statewide Spatial Data Infrastructures (SSDIs) as a means to get at the NSDI.  Organizations like the National States Geographic Information Council are helping to put form on this approach.  As in business, there is no real status quo – there is either forward progress or we are slipping.  Indiana is one such state that can say “we just decided to go.”  Earlier this year, Indiana’s Geographic Information Officer, statewide coordinating council (www.igic.org), and handful of state agencies asked local governments across the state to participate in the IndianaMap (Indiana’s SSDI).  The road has been long and not without challenges (e.g., see news stories “Commissioners reluctant to give out mapping information” and follow up story “Commissioners OK state’s mapping request”).  But deciding to go has resulted in 28 (of 92) counties signing on to participate within the first 6 months of the request, and over half the state’s population being covered.  While difficult, the result is definite progress toward coordinated information and interoperable communications for Indiana.

Those states who have committed to creating their own SSDIs have taken commendable steps to assure forward progress.  Without exception it has taken cooperation and strong leadership.  Those who just decided to go – let’s do this thing, and get’er done – are making real progress.  It would be impossible otherwise.