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Why Government should support open and free geospatial data

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Back in July, I posted about dc.gov releasing some data. I was a bit slow replying to a comment made by Nat Torkington then, and felt that a reply actually required a new post to elaborate further on why I’m so supportive of governments – be they local or national – releasing data that has been paid for by the rate/tax-payer. Nat said:

“Isn’t it the case that the USA doesn’t have an authoritative roading database, either? That’s why Navteq, TeleAtlas, and Google have to drive the roads.”

Whilst the US doesn’t have an authoritative roading database either, the release of the TIGER line shapefiles has spurred the development of free and open maps – e.g. the inclusion of Tiger data in OpenStreetMap, and the production of free and open maps for GPS units. This mirrors what has occurred in New Zealand with the likes of the NZ Open GPS Maps project, utilising the free information made available from Land Information NZ.

However, this leaves us with two broad types of maps both with their problems – commercial datasets with restrictive usage conditions and free datasets maintained by volunteers that may not be sustainable in the long term. In New Zealand, the commercial dataset providers are primarily Terralink, Critchlow’s and Eagle Technology, with some more affordable sets made available by Kim Ollivier. The free maps are primarily catered for by the New Zealand OpenStreetMap project and the NZ Open GPS Maps project.

My problem is that there is a lot of inefficiency in the current way that mapping data is managed in New Zealand (and this probably applies internationally). Why do we have four+ commercial sources for roading data and two volunteer driven projects all duplicating each other, as well as Government agencies that have legislative responsibilities for roading infrastructure?

Well, it is because LINZ is not currently funded to provide a centralised repository for all this information – they are too busy focusing on the cadestral database where they make their money. Instead we are producing inefficient silos of information, that are all subtly different. I have been prodding at a few people to try and get the NZ OpenStreetMap and Open GPS Maps projects to try and consolidate the underlying database to OSM, and I believe that this will occur over the long term, but there are a number of issues to work through before this will happen.

As Nat indicated in the original post – in the US Navteg, TeleAtlas and Google drive the roads there, and we’ve got at least Terralink, Google and probably others driving the roads here. In addition we have active volunteers also driving roads and correcting errors in OpenStreetMap and the Open GPS Maps project – I personally provide GPS tracklogs to OSM, and have also placed the 2007/8 High Speed Data Survey in there. The interesting part is that all of the errors are being corrected from the original LINZ roading dataset. So, because the New Zealand Government has not funded LINZ to maintain the roading dataset, make it widely available under permissive licensing terms, and allow feedback and corrections to be suggested for review and possible inclusion, we now have a massively inefficient approach to mapping roads in New Zealand.

All of these projects have sprung up because LINZ is not funded to provide the correct road dataset in the first place.

We can’t support that in a small country in New Zealand where only corporates, local authorities, and central government agencies can afford the commercial roading datasets due to expense. I know at least one of the commercial datasets costs over $100,000 to license. What this means is that small-and-medium sized businesses are being left out in the cold from using geospatial information to improve the way they do business as it is too expensive, and rate/tax-payers do not have affordable access to the information for tourism, recreational and safety purposes.

As the Immediate Past President of the NZ Recreational GPS Society, I’ve seen people balking in our forums at having to pay extra for decent road or topographical maps. Some of these are expensive because the GPS map vendor has needed to license the underlying data from a commercial provider. In addition to the cost, vendors also have to implement measures to stop the reverse-engineering and redistribution of this licensed data. However, like most forms of Digital Rights Management (some may say Restrictions), the technical mechanisms cause their own problems. I’ve just been helping with one person that has been suffering through Garmin’s Map Unlock process that is poorly communicated to customers, and provides nothing but roadblocks in an effort to set up the maps on the user’s computer and GPS. And even when he hopefully does have the maps unlocked, he will only be able to install them on one GPS!

Perhaps as a comparison, I am not able to download and install a copy of the Yellow Pages on my iPhone so that I can use it in a disconnected manner, but I can download the free and open Zenbu iPhone application that bundles all the data – so if for whatever reason I am out of mobile coverage, I can still use this data as it is stored locally on the device. I don’t believe that commercial directory services would be very comfortable about releasing their datasets to be installed on mobile devices, as they would risk the loss of their database in which the perceived value of their business resides. So having data released under permissive liceneses is also essential for new applications such as storing massive geospatial resources in our pockets.

That said, I’m not really in favour any more of the Government attempting to build a single massive dataset any more, as I think Government has proven that it cannot build these IT things effectively because there is too much management by committee, and the commercial vendors that provide the infrastructure are just looking for a jackpot if they win the tender (e.g. tender prices of $9-48 million for the failed National Address Register (NAR) project). I don’t see the need for the Government to build what is effectively their own OpenStreetMap infrastructure when we can just use something like OSM. Honestly, NZ Govt should just approach OpenStreetMap and look at an arrangement where Government can publish geospatial datasets into OSM with the ability to set some layers (such as say electoral and property boundaries which shouldn’t be editable) as read only, and the rest as editable – e.g. roads and walking tracks that can be maintained by everyone. If the publisher of a layer doesn’t want the original layer edited, then in some circumstances editable child layers should be allowed – e.g. so I can add a new walking track to a layer that hasn’t yet been updated to reflect it, and the owner of the original dataset can then look at whether they want to accept the change back into their layer.

Commercial geospatial datasets put nothing but roadblocks in the way for new and creative uses of geospatial data. I have no problem with commercial datasets providing value-add to the data, but the fundamental data such as roads and the like should be made as open and accessible as possible to encourage adoption and standardisation upon that dataset – this will also consolidate feedback and error correction. If I find an error now, I can’t report it to LINZ – they won’t listen. What benefit do I have in reporting a roading error to a commercial provider? Indeed the only benefit I get is if I report the error to a free and open project.

Adoption and standardisation of fundamental datasets are important to ensure consistency between map sets. Right now on my GPS I have two maps sets that both provide roads and you don’t have to look far to find discrepancies between the two datasets – but guess what, they are both derived from the LINZ road centrelines.

If left to commercial providers, geospatial data will be left as an expensive tool that only large organisations can afford.

The sooner governments in general recognise this, start funding the publishing and maintenance of fundamental datasets, the sooner we will see a real renaissance in how spatial information is used by the average organisation and individual. That is why I am so supportive of dc.gov releasing all their data.

Written by Gavin Treadgold

October 29th, 2008 at 11:10 am