Maps and the Geospatial Revolution

Who Makes Spatial Data?


Who Makes Spatial Data? Good question. Today, the answer is more often than not: everyone.

It used to be that the primary developers of spatial data were governments, and more specifically, the military. Defense mapping remains a really important driving force for all-things-mapped, but it’s not the only game in town anymore. Consumer-grade location technology is now widely available, so if you want to make a map, you don’t need to launch your own satellites or enlist cavalry.

In the United States, a critically important source for civilian spatial data is the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census collects all sorts of boundary (points, lines, and polygons – remember?) and attribute data during each decennial population census. These boundaries and their associated attributes allow industry and academia to study changes in population and to analyze social, economic, environmental, and health problems.

The business community often takes these public spatial datasets and modifies them for use in commercial applications. For example, you worked with Esri Tapestry data in the Lesson 1 Lab assignment. Tapestry segment categories (like “Sophisticated Squires” and “Dorms to Diplomas”) are developed using combinations of Census population data such as median age, average income, and home values along with other data sources gathered by private firms that focus on defining other consumer-related variables (most common makes/models of car in a county, for example). Because you’re cool and signed up for this MOOC, you got access to the Tapestry data for free. The idea, however, is to sell specialized data sets like Tapestry to businesses that are looking to improve their market share through location intelligence.

In addition to governments and industries that create tons of new spatial data all the time, there’s something more exciting that’s begun in the past few years. You’re creating new spatial data every day, whether you know it or not. Most mobile phone contracts allow for carriers to track your movements and what you do with your device all the time. This information is then stored and analyzed to try and sell you stuff, to design better devices, to sell you more stuff, and… to sell you stuff to go with your other stuff.

So you don’t have a phone, therefore nobody is tracking you? Well, if you’re reading this on the Coursera site, your IP address location is logged. Granted, determining locations from internet site logs is not as tidy as tracking someone with a GPS (certainly less awkward to explain than if your girlfriend/boyfriend finds the GPS you stuck under their bumper), but it’s enough for us to do some basic analysis on which countries have the most visitors to this course page and stuff like that. Therefore, every interaction on this course site has the effect of creating new spatial data.

Now that I’ve gone and made geography scary again, let’s focus on the good stuff that’s happening too. There are now communities of volunteers who actively create spatial data to contribute to the greater good of humanity. OpenStreetMap is one such effort – which aims to create a free basemap of the world, using only volunteer contributions. The basic way this works is that volunteers map their community using GPS trackers, or they digitize roads and features using existing satellite images. Why do this when Google, Bing, and others have already done this for most of the world? Well, those services are not actually “free” in the sense that you have no right to download or re-use the underlying data. All you can do is view the maps the way those companies want you to see them, and if Google decides someday to charge you for asking for directions to your Grandma’s house, you have no right to be upset. OpenStreetMap wants to create a free alternative that can be used and re-used by anyone for any purpose. OSM data is considered to be Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI), since it is spatial data created on a volunteer-basis. VGI is now cropping up in all sorts of contexts; it is quite important for crisis management, as evidenced in the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, when thousands of reports on the ground in Haiti were collected, translated, and mapped by volunteers using a mapping system called Ushahidi.

The power of “the crowd” to create spatial data is pretty impressive when the goals are clear and the tools to develop those datasets are usable. Check out this time-lapse video showing how volunteers worked quickly after the 2010 Haiti Earthquake to develop a detailed OpenStreetMap basemap for Port-au-Prince (a place that didn’t have widely accessible digital basemaps before the disaster struck).

OpenStreetMap - Project Haiti from ItoWorld on Vimeo.