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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.

It's easy to blame ESRI or Google for this state of affairs, and they certainly have played a part, but this is a case where we all—federal, state, and local government; higher education; and private industry—need to step up and ask how to fix the problem. Here’s what each of us must do:

Federal Government’s Role: According to an article by Dr. Christopher Tucker of the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, the problem started in President Nixon's era, when Nixon failed to approve a proposed agency to centrally coordinate mapping and other tasks that we'd classify as GIS nowadays. This was an "aha!" moment. I've worked with some pretty awesome GIS professionals, and the secret sauce seems to be to treat GIS as a multi-agency, collaborative sport in need of strong governance.

I've always wondered why the feds didn't get that. Now I know. To quote the good doctor, "The federal government lacks a functioning governance or operational structure to coordinate, deploy or utilize spatial data in a manner that could make ‘place-based’ decision making effective."

The federal government needs to prioritize governance, but it also must fund research that will provide for a federated GIS model.

State & Local Governments’ Role: This can be summed up in two words: technocratic isolationism. Over the years, I've observed that many local government GIS professionals don't prioritize process over technology, earning well-deserved labels as technocrats. In this multi-agency world of ours, everybody's got a piece of location-based data.

Enterprise architects know that you need governance when you have stewardship over data that multiple folks create and own. As a result of struggles brought on due to lack of process or governance, local governments spend more time in mortal combat than they need to. Smaller governments also have few economies of scale, while state governments tend to have stakeholders with massively inflated expectations.

All of this adds up to isolationism--the belief that any substantial collaboration with agencies that don't immediately border theirs is useless and a waste. To be fair, there are some relatively successful statewide GIS clearinghouse efforts. But they can't succeed on their own.

State and local governments need to prioritize process, governance, and collaboration.

Higher Education's Role: I'm not an expert on higher education, but I do know that lots of primary IT research and reference implementations used to come out of universities. Nowadays, however, universities seem to focus on "incubators" and other vehicles to serve the private sector.

A well-known university president went on NPR about a year ago to beg bright people to come work for universities instead of taking gold-plated private research jobs. I get his point about needing the best and the brightest to be able to produce the best serendipitous finds, which tend to result from studies that don't always necessarily have a poin--research unconstrained by immediate usefulness. And you absolutely need good and open research to solve GIS enterprise architecture issues.

Universities need to get over their lack of self esteem, figure out how to attract the best and brightest, and fund primary research without intellectual property being tied up or locked away by the private sector.

The Private Sector’s Role: As that university president bemoaned, the private sector has been able to lure incredibly bright and talented innovators. But, again, there's a profit motive. I've praised Google in the past for being enlightened about letting customers access their own data via various APIs. But that doesn't mean that Google wants to release its proprietary algorithms or reference code to the world, nor should it. It's ridiculous to blame the private sector for chasing profit. If private industry has a problem, it's self-deception: "Sure, anybody can use our services."

Right, except for those terms of use that say, "You acknowledge and agree that Google (or Google's licensors and their suppliers, as applicable) own all legal right, title and interest in and to the Service and Content."

Local governments are not going to sign off on those terms. Their taxpayers bought and paid for the content that you've included in your service. It wouldn't be responsible to acknowledge and agree that the content belongs to Google.

Private industry needs to be more upfront about just how proprietary their GIS services are, and quit pretending that universities don't have a role in primary research.

Ideally, the private sector should run innovative place-based applications using GIS data. Universities should produce key public innovations that benefit all. Maybe those innovations need a little private sector magic to make them user friendly. And government should continue to be the steady force behind the scenes, collecting and maintaining the place-based data that is so critical to good decision-making.

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