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11/16/2006
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Mapping the Future of Open Source Data

FortiusOne plans to open a public data repository and social network for data sharing to encourage the creation of dynamic online map mashups that combine multiple data sets.

Some time toward the end of this year, FortiusOne plans to open a public data repository and social network for data sharing to encourage the creation of dynamic online map mashups that combine multiple data sets.

FortuisOne recently released an online geospatial analysis and heat mapping service called GeoIQ that enables geographic data visualization in online mapping applications like Google Maps and Microsoft Virtual Earth. Using the company's open API, Web-based map makers can present and combine multiple data sets using colorful, contiguous heat maps rather than discrete pushpin icons.

"The thing that always frustrated me was the ability to look at only one data set at a time," says Sean Gorman, CEO and founder of FortiusOne. "One of the things that's really critical for our application to have a lot of value is there has to be a lot of data for it to consume. Since most of these mapping applications are geared toward the masses rather than the traditional desktop GIS environment, our take on it is that data needs largely to be free."

Data sharing may be the next logical step in the movement toward open systems and networks. But it's not without its problems.

In 2003, as a George Mason University graduate student, Gorman used freely available public data to create a map of the U.S. fiber-optic network and the businesses it connected as part of his Ph.D. dissertation. In a July 2003 story about Gorman's work in The Washington Post, former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke suggested that Gorman's dissertation be burned to keep it from those aiming to damage critical national infrastructure.

Gorman is more cautious today. "Any new data that would be put in the database is information that the government has deemed safe in a post-9/11 world to release publicly," he says. "We have no intention of making sensitive data public and have taken measures to make sure nothing we have done in the past that was labeled sensitive is uploaded. At the end of the day though, it is the government's responsibility to determine what is sensitive and what is not. It is not directly ours although we do take as many precautions as reasonable to prevent it."

Of course, the tensions created by the increasing availability of data and escalating security concerns remain unresolved. "It's a hard ethics and security challenge in the age we live in today," says Marcus Sachs, deputy director of the computer science lab at SRI International. "We need to be very, very aware that what we thought was private or controlled information, in many cases no longer is. That's an assumption that needs to go away. If we're going to protect ourselves, we have to protect ourselves in a world where all our data is visible."

In a perverse way, says Sachs, Gorman's past and current work is making everyone more secure by forcing the public to confront data privacy issues. "Rather than fretting over it," he says, "let's just embrace the technology and figure out how we can live with it." Sachs points to how eBay has moved from selling anything online to disallowing certain transactions as a way that those dealing with data might follow.

So it is that the informational floodgates are opening. The details are still being sorted out, but Gorman says his company's data repository will include facts and figures detailing the locations of spammers by street address (based on work Gorman did for Spamhaus.org), the incidence of West Nile and cancer mortality rates, U.S. census statistics, earthquakes, landslides, volcanic activity, and the locations of bars, to name a few data sets. While the bulk of this data is available elsewhere, having it aggregated and supported by a social network of data sharing aficionados should make it much more useful, valuable, and perhaps controversial.

Demographic and geographic information is already highly prized for applications that involve real estate-related search. Online real estate site Zillow.com, for example, makes effective use of heat maps to show home values over large areas.

"What's driven mapping applications is the local search problem," says Gorman. "That's why Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are investing so heavily in it."

Both businesses and individuals are finding uses for the technology. Gorman points to energy company BP as an organization that's making effective use of Microsoft Virtual Earth.

The name of the repository has yet to be decided. Gorman says his company is in the processes of cleaning up the data sets and annotating them in a community wiki.

"The concept we want to push is to get other people to share their data as well," says Gorman. "So our stuff will be available to upload, download, and induce other people to share their data."

As for his dissertation, it survived the flames. Gorman says it resides safe in a library, though a longer version has been published by an academic press. He adds, "There was a letter written by the Department of Homeland Security to George Mason a year-plus after the media attention asking for the research to be classified, but we had spun out the company at that point and were working with DHS so it really was no longer an issue."

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