Spatial data sharing shouldn’t be based on hoarding or selfishness


Have you ever found yourself lost in the maze of online maps, desperately searching for the perfect shapefile that matches the area in the map? Have you felt the frustration of scouring through countless reports from government institutions, only to be left empty-handed when it comes to finding that elusive boundary file? Have you been left scratching your head over conflicting geometry files, unsure which one is the right one for your project?

And what about the agony of stumbling upon multiple geometry files that cover the same area, yet none of them seem to be the right fit? The confusion of trying to compare calculations, only to realize that the size of the area isn’t even the same?

And don’t even get me started on the nightmare of trying to access spatial data from an organization. It can take ages to finally get your hands on the data, and sometimes, you might even have to pay for it! It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out in frustration.

But why is it so difficult to access this data that we need to make informed decisions? The answer is simple: some people believe that they own the data and are reluctant to share it. They believe that because they put in so much time and effort to collect it, they have the right to keep it to themselves. Others are afraid that sharing their spatial data will give their competitors an advantage. And then there are those who hide behind the excuse of confidentiality, claiming that the data is too sensitive to be shared.

But the truth is, we need access to this data in order to make progress. We need it to make informed decisions about our communities, our businesses, and our environment. We need it to create a better future for ourselves and for generations to come.

So let’s break down these barriers and work together to share this valuable resource. Let’s collaborate and make spatial data accessible to everyone who needs it. After all, the power of data lies in its ability to be shared and analyzed. In this article, I share my take on why spatial shouldn’t be sold or hoarded for any reason.

Lessons from the Parable of the Vineyard

Let me share this biblical parable of the laborers of the vineyard. This story is exclusively found in the Gospel of Matthew and it tells of a vineyard owner who hires laborers at different times during the day. The workers who were hired in the morning worked a full day while those hired in the afternoon and the evening only worked for half day and an hour respectively. Despite this, the owner pays all of them the same daily wage of a denarius.

The owner takes care to make sure that everyone knows that they are paid equally, regardless of the hours they worked. However, the workers who were hired first complain that they should have been paid more than those who worked for a shorter time. The owner responds to their complaint by asking if they did not agree to the usual daily wage and if he is not allowed to do what he wants with his own money. He questions if their envy is because of his generosity.

Allow me to share a perspective from Elder Jeffery R Holland’s (a religious leader) , interpretation of this  religious parable. He highlights how the workers hired in the morning were considered fortunate to have secured a job and provide for their families, while those who were hired later in the day felt disappointed and hopeless. Even those who were hired for an hour had little hope for mercy as they knew the day was almost over, and their families might go hungry. Despite their lack of expectation, they were grateful for whatever wages they received.

Similarly, many spatial data projects are funded and executed with the intention of achieving specific goals. The project managers are happy to have collected the data and score points for their project management skills. However, after the project is completed, the data is often achieved. When someone else requests access to this data to complement their research or project, the project managers feel reluctant to share or the requester  may face resistance or hefty fees.

But we must remember the response of the master in the parable, who asked if he was not allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him. The same can be applied to spatial data – those who collected it may feel entitled to keep it for themselves, but it is essential to remember that the data was collected with funding and resources that belong to the public. Denying access to this data prevents progress and innovation, hindering the ability to achieve comprehensive insights and make informed decisions.

Keeping Spatial Data for Advantage: Why Sharing is Still the Best Option

Several organizations possess data that was not funded by public resources, and they have been in possession of this data for some time. As a result, they have a significant advantage over any other individual or organization who will receive the data at a later time. These organizations have invested millions of dollars in collecting the data, not for the purpose of selling it, but to gain a better understanding of their business operations and make more money.

You may recall how grateful you were to be among the first to obtain this data, giving you an advantage over anyone who will receive it later. However, if the data has remained with you for all this time and you believe that another person can make better use of it than you, then the issue is probably not one of data access but a lack of ideas or skills to analyze the data effectively.

This implies that even if you refuse to provide the data to the person requesting it and they decide to gather the data on their own, they will still be able to extract more value from it than you if you lack the necessary knowledge or expertise. Frequently, the person requesting the data has a different goal for it than the original purpose for which it was collected. Why are we concerned about what others might do with the data when we have already taken a lot if not everything we can from it for our own purpose? If we foster a culture of data sharing, both parties can benefit from the data without conflict, since they have different objectives and goals in mind.

Data is not information although data can be information to some extent

The distinction between data and information becomes evident in the way people use these terms. Those who request it refer to it as “data,” while those who possess it consider it to be “information.” This is perhaps where conflicts arise, and the notion of payment becomes necessary. When organizations collect and store data, they view it as information that others may require and, as a result, believe that they should pay to obtain it. However, the fact that the individual requesting the data refers to it as data implies that it will be combined with other data to generate the information they require, making it an input rather than an output. In essence, data in itself is not information until processed.

The depiction of reality expressed in spatial maps is highly influenced by the mapmaker’s perspective, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is critical to allow multiple viewpoints of the same data so that users including previous owners can have access to additional resources to form their own conclusions.

Breaking the Hoarding Mentality

Collecting data can be expensive, which is why it’s not always sustainable to continually gather data from the field. Additionally, the rate of spatial data expiration makes it difficult for anyone to claim that their data is fully up-to-date. In the Geospatial industry, data is classified as either spatial or attribute. Spatial data refers to points, lines, polygons and georeferenced rasters  with their associated latitude and longitude, while attribute data describes the characteristics of these points, lines, and polygons.

While spatial data remains relatively stable, attribute data changes frequently and can be challenging to keep up with. For example, a church building may quickly become an event center, and tenants in a rental property can change rapidly. The value of spatial data analysis is dependent on the accuracy of the attribute data, which means that census data collected a few months ago may not accurately reflect the current state of the area.

It’s important to note that hoarding data can be counterproductive, as the data may become outdated and useless. Instead of duplicating efforts and collecting the same data repeatedly, sharing data can give another organization the ability to focus on updating the attribute data and filling in any gaps to ensure that the data remains up-to-date. I am not saying old data is useless, it is really important to understand the past which is connected to the present so one can still be proud of their data but remember that as much as past data is important, decisions are made in the present.

The Geospatial industry is not a competition between organizations, but rather a collaboration to overcome obstacles such as data unavailability, data inaccuracy, and data incompleteness. Rather than seeing hoarding spatial data as a strategic advantage, we should aim to share data and work together to improve its accuracy and completeness.

If you’re still hesitant about sharing your spatial data despite everything I’ve said, think back to how grateful you felt when someone shared their location with you through Google Maps and helped you reach an unfamiliar place. Remember the relief you felt when you were able to locate your lost device because you had shared your location with Google or Apple. Recall the joy you felt when you found a missing family member or friend because they had shared their last known location. And consider how frustrating it was when you received incorrect directions on your Google or OSM map because nobody had shared the necessary data.

In conclusion, it’s time to break down the barriers and work together to share spatial data. The power of data lies in its ability to be shared and analyzed, and denying access to it prevents progress and innovation. We need to remember that the data was collected with funding and resources that belong to the public, and denying access to it prevents us from making informed decisions about our communities, businesses, and environment. Let’s strive to be generous with our spatial data, just as the master in the biblical parable was with his wages. By sharing our data, we can all benefit from the knowledge it provides and create a better future for ourselves and generations to come.

>>>the writer is the founder of Where Geospatial and currently the President of Where Geospatial Media, a non for profit organization whose vision is to establish a geospatial ecosystem that aids development by utilizing geospatial technologies. Professionally, he works as a GIS Solutions Engineer, assisting clients in integrating GIS technologies into their work processes to increase productivity through training and technical support. He occasionally publishes some of his thoughts in blogs.

Email:  [email protected]



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