Saturday, May 17, 2008

Government GIS: Going Public 2.0

We in government love our GIS data. We spend hours, days, weeks, months, years perfecting our data. Generally the audience for our data are the people within our jurisdictions. A controlled audience and a known way of disseminating the information. Let's face it, most of us are ESRI shops. Our data are in a RDBMS using ArcSDE/ArcGIS Server or on a file server. We share the data via desktop applications like ArcMap or via our intranet utilizing ArcIMS or ArcGIS Server.
What happens when our organizations decide to publish the GIS data to the public on the internet? Traditionally we have stuck to what we know: a watered down version of how we publish data internally. Turns out we have some new options available to us in the past few years. Google Maps, Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth have burst upon the scene. While these applications have been around for for a few years now, many government agencies have not figured out how to incorporate their data within these freely available platforms.

Why is this? Are we scared? Do we not know how? For me it is a good bit of both. Scared to put our data out there in a way in which we may loose control over the data. Unsure how to hop on this new wave of cloud mapping.

The idea that a government release its data in to the collective internet universe, without retaining complete control over how that information is presented, represents a brave new world. The accuracy of a municipalities zoning data or location of its fire stations is of utmost importance. We are tasked with providing the public with mapping information and hang our hats on the accuracy of that information. Now we are starting to give our data to companies like Google so they can integrate our data into their products. Sure the data is still copyrighted to Municipality X, or County Y, or State Z; however, Google is building a mapping WiKi like universe on the interwebs.

Here is the scenario, Municipality X provides some type of data to Google, say building models for the whole of the municipality, then someone comes along and decides they have a better building model for an office building. Google approves the new office building created by John Q. Public mapper and the office building is replaced. So what's the problem? Is there one? Are future users of Google Earth bettered by the fact that the office building was replaced by John Q. Public? Sure if the model published by municipality was lacking information or was out of date. But not really if John Q. Public published something that is incorrect or is of questionable quality. Google cannot be expected to throughly vet everything published by the public. Will the municipality have some ability to request the information be removed? Should they? Will they even try? Where is the QC? Let me ask that again WHERE IS THE QC? Who is the ultimate decision maker?

On the flip side of the coin, is giving up a little control worth having our data reach a larger audience? How many people visit Municipality X's website versus Virtual Earth or Google Maps per day? Sure we can build the most amazing sexy public web mapping site filled with real time data published by the municipality. But what if now one finds it? If no one visits the site does it really exist?

Data providers have a far greater chance of having their data being used if it is incorporated into these new wildly popular applications. If I would like people to utilize the parking structures within my municipality where are people more likely to find them on the web prior to their visit? By combing through or simply going to or Clearly one would be more apt to find the structures within the same website they used to provide them directions from their house to where ever they are headed. By releasing the data from our steely grips the general public might actually use it.

I realize I have more questions in the diatribe than answers. I wish I had answers. I wish there was more precedent on which to formulate answers. As I said earlier this is a brave new world for some of us within the GIS community. Time will tell how well government data is integrated within Virtual Earth or Google Maps. The release of ArcGIS Server 9.3, with it's ability to server KML, will be interesting to watch. Stay tuned...the World is watching.


Ben R said...

Where is the QC? Let me ask that again WHERE IS THE QC? Who is the ultimate decision maker?

Why have one? Would there really be a problem if they just offered both as separate layers? Users could assess each based on linked in metadata.

MtnMaven said...


Based on my understand of the proposed process being presented by Google, the data provided by the municipality (example was an office building) would be removed and replaced by the building created by John Q. Public. There would not be two layers for the public to decide between.

The perception I get when speaking with Google is that accuracy is not nearly as important as just getting the data out there.

Another point here is that when providing data to Google for them to host and server within their products we loose a bit of control we are accustom to. I'm not passing judgment to that statement, just posing the issue.

ChrisW said...

Not sure if I understand all this stuff, but here goes...

If Google decides to use John Q's building model, then why is it your problem as the municipality? You are not responsible for John Q's model, or Google's decision to use it. If the choice of model is relevant to things like planning regulations etc, then the relevant authority would have to specify the acceptable standards for tools/models etc, just as financial authorities specify standards for accounting practice and so on. I can already put misleading info up on the web, but if that causes people real problems, I'll need to talk to my lawyers. So if John Q's model is unreliable and somebody has problems because of that, then John Q or Google may end up spending some time in court, and next time around they'll make sure to use your model instead. Or the court will decide that only a fool would make a serious decision based on something John Q put up on Google, in which case the user will make sure he uses your model next time instead.

As for data, if your data is genuinely freely available to the public, then Google is simply another channel of making that data available to the public. If you have to limit access to your data for any reason, then you should be doing that already (as I'm sure you are) with appropriate security mechanisms to stop John Q logging in over the web and stealing it all. The same rules would apply to Google's efforts to catalogue your data - don't let them have access to anything they shouldn't see.

Of course, there are lots of other issues e.g. the costs (financial and in server load etc) of providing public access to data/processes, and so on, but these already apply in non-GIS areas anyway.

Or am I just being stupid?

Ben R said...

Another point here is that when providing data to Google for them to host and server within their products we loose a bit of control we are accustom to. I'm not passing judgment to that statement, just posing the issue.

This is a very good point and I'm glad you've made it. Even simple thing like changing symbols and color schemes can greatly affect how the data is interpreted. I would urge any public or private firm entertaining the notion of using any 3rd party online platform to include contractual obligations that mitigate this.