Why doesn’t geospatial data really break free?

by Matt Ball on October 22, 2010

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A lot of spatial data is locked up and won’t see the light of day unless major policy changes occur. While there would appear to be some legitimate concerns for some of this data to remain inaccessible, the question really is more about the benefits that we’re missing than the benefits we gain by keeping it locked away.

Spatial data accessibility, sharing and integration continue to be the biggest fail points of geospatial solutions. Despite amazing advancements in web-based mapping, spatial analysis, large-scale visualization, modelling, and collaborative mapping, we lack insight into earth system interaction because of failures to cooperate.

The movement is on for crowdsourced mapping efforts at a global scale, and there have been many efforts to open up public-sector data for analysis and insight from citizens. These developments are quite promising, but nothing could boost the potential of the tools like unlocking the existing spatial data from creators, and of integrating all possible data into an open and accessible platform. A whole government approach toward geospatial systems and models would aid the industry, policy makers and the public.

Security and Privacy

The most common answers for refusing to open up more data is that this would be a security threat or that the privacy of individuals would be violated. The somewhat legitimate concerns in this realm fail to take into account the other side of the coin in terms of lives saved and enriched, and infrastructure and efficiency enhanced.

The stand-out Rand study that took a look at openness of data in terms of security concerns immediately after 9/11, favored sharing based upon minimal risk in the face of the overwhelming benefits of availability. The argument was that most publicly accessible federal geospatial information appears unlikely to provide significant useful and unique information for satisfying attackers’ information needs.

This study was undertaken as an effort to continue access to already available data, and did not advocate or try and quantify the societal benefits of free and open access to coordinated and integrated geospatial data. It’s definitely worth further exploration of the value of facilitated spatial data integration beyond the current disjointed and duplicative efforts that we have now.

A Model Emerges

The issue of spatial data integration is a hard and difficult one on the nation-scale. There are efforts for greater data integration at all levels of government here in the United States, even at the national scale, yet these limp along year to year without a strong mandate and with little practical progress. There are perennial issues of duplication between agencies and different levels of government on the data acquisition side, but what’s most egregious is the lack of integration on any meaningful level in terms of issues of a shared need for understanding. There are certainly elements of insight that could be better arrived at, and validated between agencies, with a more open sharing of spatial data.

In Europe the INSPIRE directive is charting a course for broad collaboration across the 27 member states to achieve normalization of 32 spatial data themes dealing with the environment. Here there is regulation mandating the outcome of an issue with transboundary impact on all citizens, and it’s tied to the reasonable, achievable and imperative goal of better environmental data and better access to the data by the public. There are further goals too to eliminate the redundancy, share across boundaries and applications, have transparency of access, and be easy to find. All of these goals should be on the table for all governments of the world, particularly on the theme of environmental monitoring and management.

Achieving Momentum

There’s often no better motivator for any major change than competition, and Europe’s lead on this, and hopefully their glorious success, should help spur action elsewhere. The establishment of map providers may have issue with such a bold directive, particularly when it comes to issues of jurisdictional boundaries and other such map-related sticking points that are often difficult to harmonize. With these issues constantly present, it’s impossible to achieve any real traction without a bold plan set into law that goes beyond the mandate of any party in power. For this change to happen in North Americ,a it would most likely require a bold new law that aims to emulate the INSPIRE approach.

Unfortunately, in the current political climate the issue of the environment has become politicized, so the EU’s goal with the directive may prove too difficult to achieve. Pick any other large policy issue though that has a strong geospatial component, such as energy or aging infrastructure, and let’s work on that. It doesn’t really matter what the underlying driving force is here for greater access, integration, data normalization, or cooperation. The bottom line is that it’s past time to achieve such spatial data goals, and that the net benefit far outweighs any of the negative and well-established arguments of the status quo.

One of the most likely outcomes of such a concerted effort of data interoperability and access is that we’ll discover that our data is wildly different across the various agencies and levels of government, and that there are major gaps in information. At least we’ll be shedding light on these gaps and the questions that we’re unable to answer through our analysis, rather than thinking that the decision making systems that we rely upon offer us the truth.

America’s Publicly Available Geospatial Information: Does It Pose a Homeland Security Risk?, Rand Corporation, 2004

The Inspire Directive, European Commission

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin Pomfret October 22, 2010 at 8:11 am


I don’t think that a single law is going to be enough to free up spatial data in the way that you suggest. Spatial data sharing is generally accomplished through licensing (or data sharing) agreements. Almost every organization is going to have a lawyer review such an agreement before executing it. Currently there exists a great deal of uncertainty and confusion with regards to certain legal and policy issues associated with the sharing of spatial data. These issues include security and privacy, as you suggest, but also intellectual property and liability – and they exist in countries around the world. It is very difficult for a lawyer to agree to share data with such uncertainty, particularly valuable or sensitive data.

Experience suggests that a single law or directive dictating the sharing of data is not enough, as it will not address these practical legal issues. What is also needed is active dialogue between the technical and legal representatives of the larger geospatial communities to help better identify solutions and allocate legal risk between the respective entities.

Matt Ball October 22, 2010 at 10:43 am

I’m definitely reaching here, but I do think that a unifying directive that focuses on a specific objective would be helpful to band together the layers of government – federal, state, and local. The focus would be to help normalize and integrate data, and to understand the degree that data is missing. This could then lead to an outreach to industry to understand the costs of filling in the gaps on the data acquisition side, as well as the software development work that would be needed on the integration side.

Stefan Knecht October 26, 2010 at 1:35 am


investigating a pan-European geodata aggregation effort recently, my experiences are somewhat differing. The 27/32 mandate (27 EU member states on 32 themes) is a vision, way out of current reality. There already is plenty of data out there, collected and aggregated with both tax money and private funding. Yet still getting hold of the data is more of a sneaker network, drilling through bureaucracies and networks to get hold of the one person that actually can tell you what data types are available. Not to say it’ll be licensable to anyone else and not talking about licensing terms. So a policy change truely is a first move – changing arcane processes within almost sealed environments a neccessary and parallel initiative. Within this context, all knowledge is local – as people are.

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