What’s best for the geospatial economy, free or fee geospatial data?

by Matt Ball on February 29, 2008

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In the United States, there’s a long history of free federal geospatial data, with the understanding that the taxpayers have paid for the collection of this information so the data belongs to the public. This data has been harnessed by commercial organizations to stand up services and add value to the data. This data has been used heavily by researchers to gain a better understanding of populations and our natural world. And this data has been used by governments to analyze constituents, infrastructure, public land and to prioritize investment of public funds.

Without the base foundation of consistent and universal free data for the entire country, the U.S. geospatial market wouldn’t be anywhere near as large, and we wouldn’t have the amount of services and technology innovation that we take for granted today.

Platform for Economic Expansion

By providing free data to the public and for reuse by industry, the foundation was laid for industry to add value and to improve upon the accuracy and scale of the free information. The free data provided a platform for companies to build a business model around, and in turn those companies raised interest and awareness in digital mapping so that a whole industry was born.

Free data primes the pump for better data and services. When faced with the realization that free data isn’t of a high enough resolution and accuracy for purpose, the user turns to geospatial providers to collect new information to their own specifications.

Private companies are constantly battling on the basis of quality, validity, accuracy and cost of geospatial data. The competition to create better data more quickly and cheaply for better sales margins has led to a great deal of innovation in both hardware and software. Without the incentive to grab more money from customers by doing things better and faster, we wouldn’t see the richness of data collection options that we have today.

Geospatial data is expensive to collect and maintain. Many governments insist on charging something for their data as a means for cost recovery, but this model hampers data use and doesn’t come close to the economic rewards of free market access.

Back in 1996, a company called MapQuest harnessed the U.S. Census Bureau’s TIGER files to stand up the first online mapping and driving directions website. The site quickly grew a large online following and the company was one of the first major Internet winners when it was bought for $1.1 Billion USD by America Online. That one valuation and transaction raised millions of dollars in capital gains taxes, and there are plenty more geospatial companies that have filled the tax coffers based upon their successful performance.

Free Leads to Free

Up until the online mapping sites such as MapQuest, the free geospatial data was turned into commercial data with a cost. Distributing free data for free just didn’t have a business model until the Internet arrived and traffic translated into advertising revenue. The success of this model and the value of local search have spawned a great number of competing web mapping sites.

Mapping is a key component of the local search market. The market for local search is advertising driven with companies willing to spend considerable funds to be the first listing that consumers see when searching for a product locally. That market is estimated at more than $60 Billion annually in the United States alone. This market provides great incentive for richer mapping experiences that connect customers with the items that they want.

The considerable investments by competing companies (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, etc.) to create platforms with distinct offerings means a considerable investment in data and technology that benefits geospatial service companies. I’ve heard that Microsoft alone has invested more than $500 million USD in geospatial data acquisition for Microsoft Virtual Earth. Those investment dollars are considerable and are repeated across much of the free online consumer map data and service space.

The discussion of the economies of free just received a big boost in awareness through a feature by Chris Anderson in the latest issue of WIRED magazine that’s titled, Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business. According to Anderson, “the difference between one penny and free is the difference between having to make a conscious decision or to just do it.”

The fact that we’ve had barrier-free access to geospatial information has led to a great many commitments and investments by both commercial and public entities to create systems and solutions that provide insight and value for their customers. These investments have also created enormous value and tax revenue for the federal government. I doubt that anyone in government has adequately analyzed and estimated the value of free geospatial data weighed against cost, but it certainly represents a huge return on investment.

Coming Full Circle

This past week, there was an announcement that the U.S. Geological Survey would use Tele Atlas map data. According to the notice, “the USGS will deliver Web-based 1:24,000-scale maps containing the U.S. National Grid in conjunction with Tele Atlas map data, to support the efforts of the USGS serving the emergency and first responder communities.”

This development brings that initial federal investment full circle. The availability of free data created an industry that can produce data of high quality and accuracy at a national scale that is cheaper for the government to purchase than to create themselves. This shift away from the government as arbiter of data quality has far-reaching implications that can only benefit geospatial technology companies. Future federal spending on geospatial data will almost certainly include a larger portion of public/private partnership for data creation going forward.

Free federal data spurred free market competition. If the data were locked up to begin with, the market would never have taken off. There wouldn’t be the level of investment in technology, and we’d be much poorer in terms of both economic benefit and our knowledge of our world.

Read what Jeff Thurston has to say on this topic here.


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