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10/8/2009
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How To Fix The GIS Data Mess

Despite thousands of data sources for geographic information systems, there's no universal standard or widespread, non-proprietary way to federate that data. It doesn't have to be this way.

Used to be that only local governments and shipping companies cared about geographic information systems. But now, the market is telling us that GIS is a "can't live without" feature of not only place-based applications like Google Maps, but a mainstay of federal economic stimulus programs.

There's only one problem: GIS is fundamentally broken.

Here's an example: 30% of the trails in the woods behind my house were recently destroyed by a school construction project. If GIS had kept pace with other information technologies and practices, trail data would have been available to local government agency planners, and allowances could have been made prior to construction. In this case, 40 feet would have made a pretty significant difference. Make no mistake: Effective, usable GIS has the ability to affect you, literally right in your backyard.

It’s too bad GIS has been a train wreck for years. To understand why that is, imagine that IANA and ICANN don’t exist to provide policy guidance and domain name system implementation. Instead, every organization, large and small, keeps tables of their own IP addresses and Web servers, in varying formats. Governments and universities just suffer with this situation. Finally, a large company, in the spirit of innovation, gloms on to what the authors of modern DNS figured out: The Internet's not real usable if there's not a federated system for host-to-name lookups. But this corporation decides that everyone must sign on to their terms of use if they want access to this new federated address system.

Frankly, this would make for a pretty bad Internet, because we’d all have to abide by one private organization's profit-driven licensing and usage guidelines. Many would choose simply not to buy into the service. Significant advances in the field of federated name-to-address lookup that served the public good would be stifled, because there's a bottom line to consider. It's not private industry's role to provide for the public good; it's private industry's role to innovate to the point where they attract customers and maximize profit.

I don't care how "not evil" this corporation is; it’s not going to release its proprietary algorithms and reference code into the public domain without a clear strategic (read: financial) motive.

That's the situation with GIS. There are thousands of data sources for geographic information systems. Look no further than your local municipality or county. The problem is, there's no universal standard, and even if there were, there's no widespread, non-proprietary way to federate that data. Silo systems are an egregious 1980’s era enterprise architecture issue, and we're all paying for it.

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