Data Openness

One of the biggest impediments today to the realization of goals of the VTP - a live, fully-interactive representation of the entire world as a source of education and insight - is that the geographic data is not available.


The history of geodata in the USA is in sharp contrast to the rest of the world.

In the USA, there is a tradition at the level of the federal government that most geodata is in the public domain.  This makes perfect sense, as taxpayer funds were used to produce the data, and all citizens stand to benefit from its use.  This includes topo maps, elevation data, aerial and satellite images, and every other kind of spatial data.

In the rest of the world, generally speaking, geodata has been collected only by the military and tightly-controlled government agencies.  The data is very often simply not available at all to the public or commercial sector - or available only at great cost and severely limiting license restrictions.  For example, in the UK the Ordnance Survey is a quasi-governmental organization, which charges several thousand pounds for the rights to use a small bit of data, by one person, on a single computer, for a limited time.

In the USA, at the state and city levels of government, the situation has historically not been as enlightened as the federal government.  Municipal data is often produced without any exposure to the public, without any mechanism for distribution, or otherwise restricted.  Often there are both political and technical barriers to sharing the data.  Small government organizations often lack the awareness to lower these barriers.

At the Federal level, there continues to be positive signs, from the Oct. 2009 Gov 2.0 summit:

"Public data" means online data in real time. This is the mantra of Vivek Kundra, our nation's Chief Information Officer. We must democratize data, he explains. People want the raw data. The public can handle the data and create ideas and move government forward. Kundra sees this current movement as the third economic revolution in our nation's history: the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the transparency of information revolution.

Situation Today

The impediments to data openness can be summarized by the human failings that cause them: Greed, Ignorance, Short-sightedness, and Fear.

Greed - Greed can be a issue, especially in countries where quasi-governmental groups operate without public accountability.  Instead of treating geodata as a public resource, it is hoarded by organizations that exists as monopolies, bilking the public again and again for data that the public has already paid for.

Ignorance and Short-sightedness - Many governments are largely oblivious to the benefits of a publicly available geospatial infrastructure.  They are often stuck in modes of thinking that are decades or centuries out of date, with no awareness of their own country's geospatial industry, or the myriad benefits of open geodata for education, planning, and countless potential future uses.

Fear - In many countries, the government allows mapping to be controlled by the military, which often treats every single bit of geodata as a potential secret that must be kept from that country's enemies - every road, building, and tree!  Since 2001/9/11, this attitude has also crept into parts of the US government, with a handful of datasets pulled from the public in the name of "fighting terrorism", although most of these fears have since been shown to be baseless.  The vast majority of geodata is useless to "terrorists", while being of immense value to the public.

Resources - USA

Vital reading about US data availability before and after 9/11:

Al Leidner was involved in the GIS efforts of the city of New York for his entire career, and led the heroic effort to assemble the city-wide GIS data needed in the wake of 9/11.  He retired in 2004, and gave an excellent public presentation that summarizes the importance of open geodata.  His example is New York City, but it applies equally for the whole world:

In May 2004, the Rand Corporation published a report (sponsored by the NGA) concerning the threat that publicly available geospatial data on US Government web sites might pose in the hands of terrorists that "found that less than one percent of the 629 federal data sets they studied appeared to have notable value to would-be attackers":

There appears to be some progress: the FGDC has published some rational, easily understood criteria for use in deciding what data should be available to the public:

odc The Open Data Consortium project helps with the process:

Initiated and organized by GIS Consultant Bruce Joffe, with the purpose of deriving and promoting a model policy for distributing governmental geospatial data that can serve as a de-facto example to guide public agencies.  Affiliated with the GeoData Alliance.  They have produced a Model Data Distribution Policy and written 10 Ways to Support GIS without selling data.

The NGA (aka DMA, NIMA) has a global vector dataset called VMAP1.  Although it is technically public domain as a product of the US Federal government, as of 2006, the public still cannot get it.

Across the USA at the local/city level, data openness is being fought on a case-by-case basis.  Ref: Slashdot article on the town of Greenwich, CT: Court Rules GIS Data Can't Be Kept Secret.

The conflict between US federal and local agency approaches, with its consequences, is well described in Policy Review: Blocking Public Geospatial Data Access Is Not Only a Homeland Security Risk, Bradley Tombs, URISA Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2005

Resources - International

inspireAs of late 2004, there is an EU initiative called INSPIRE for establishing a common spatial data infrastructure.  However, it is deeply flawed in regards to data openness, as explained on

Open Data at the Open Knowledge Foundation Network has more information about European issues. was a site from 1999 to 2002, dedicated to the issue of access to government geospatial data across Canada.  While the original site no longer exists, there is a mirror on the VTP server.  It is full of great explanation of the importance of geodata, much of which applies to the whole world, not just Canada.  In particularly, see the excellent Why should government spatial data be free?  Thankfully, Canada has made significant strides towards openness since the site was published.  See press coverage from 2007, Canada drops licenses and adopts free model for map data.  Hopefully, Canada's experience can be helpful in other countries.

A KPMG study on the Canadian Spatial Data Infrastructure in 2001, cited in the INSPIRE page above, concluded that closed, restricted data has major economic harm: "the consequences [of cost recovery] for businesses are higher marginal costs, lower research and development investments and threatened marginal products. The results for consumers are negative: higher prices and reduced products and services. The overall economic consequences... are fewer jobs, reduced economic output by almost $2.6 billion and a lower gross domestic product."

Further reference, citing the enormous advantages that the USA has over Europe by nature of it more open federal data: Xavier Lopez, The Dissemination of Spatial Data, A North American-European Comparative Study on the Impact of Government Information Policy.

At the global level, the only hope of a world-wide free vector dataset is VMAP1, which is tightly held by NGA (see above, under Resources - USA).

In the UK, the national mapping agency Ordnance Survey (OS) is infamously closed, expensive and extremely restrictive in the use of their data.

If you know of other advocacy organization trying to spread the word on open geodata in other parts of the world, please let us know.