Why isn’t collaborative geodata a big deal already?

So if by Weber’s criteria geospatial data has a high chance for a true architecture of participation to form around, then why don’t we see more collaboratively built maps? Why do governments and commercial ventures dominate the landscape of geospatial data? Though there are several emerging examples, shouldn’t they be a bigger deal?

As I posit that a successful architecture of participation is made up of both a social component and a technical component, let’s examine the hold ups in each.

On the social side of the fence I believe the problem is mostly historical. Maps have traditionally been viewed as a source of power, something to be kept secret. King Phillip II of Spain kept his maps under lock and key – state secrets to be protected. Maps are historically the tools of conquerors and rulers, and thus kept private to retain an advantage. Though maps obviously have a huge value for a large number of civil society uses, there seems to be a legacy of maps as a competitive advantage instead of a base of cooperation. The workflows for the creation of maps thus aren’t seen as having the potential for wider contributions, for opening themselves up.

In contrast the tradition with software is one of sharing. Indeed it wasn’t until the late 1970s before anyone even thought of software as something to keep protected, to attempt to sell . Software’s roots are academic and hobbyist – two groups for whom sharing is natural. Contributing to the sharing ethos is the fact that in the early days there were so many different chips and computers that the only way one could distribute a piece of software to more than one brand of computer was to include the source code. Binary distributions just weren’t a viable option if you wanted many people to make use of your software.

In the early 80s, however, computer manufacturers started providing their own operating systems and requiring license agreements to use them. Indeed Microsoft got their first big break by re-selling an operating system to IBM. This was a huge boon for computer software in general, as it enabled more people to work on software for a living, as software itself was seen to have value. But the sharing roots of software could not be denied, as Richard Stallman soon formed the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation to counter the commodification of software and to create open structures of sharing.

While the Free and Open Source Software movement has grown to become a huge success, mapping data, with no tradition of sharing, has become increasingly locked down, commodified, and managed by a bureaucratic-informational complex. The sharing is weighted by the legacy of paper maps, which could not be copied infinitely, and searching for mapping data is similarly bogged in library metaphors. While software just needed to get back to its roots to share, geospatial information has no similar roots. Not surprisingly, the fore front of the fledgling open geodata movement is dominated by people with roots in software, not traditional GIS types.

As for the technical side of the fence, the main problem as I see it is that the software to create maps and do GIS is bloody expensive. Desktop software runs thousands of dollars, up to tens of thousands of dollars. There have emerged some low cost options, but those still run at least a couple of hundred dollars. Server software is even more expensive. Additionally there are also training costs – super expensive software seems to beg ‘training’ to justify itself by forming an ‘elect’ of those who are able to operate it. If it’s hard enough to operate that someone needs to be specially trained then it must be worth all that money (see for example oracle vs. postgres, the latter is almost as powerful, yet far, far easier to set up). Past that there is surveying equipment and GPSes, which have been quite expensive.

So in the past, the tools to create maps were too expensive. But this is changing. Commercial GPSes are quite cheap, and open source GIS software is emerging. Of course the technical in turn feeds back in to the social – I don’t believe that if existing GIS software were suddenly freely available it would be sufficient to spark a true architecture of participation around geospatial data. It is still too tied to a culture of the GIS elect – GIS as a special skill that must be learned, that only few have. While the first wave of open source desktop GIS are only aping the traditional tools, the great thing is that they are open, and for the most part designed in a modular fashion. I’ll try to hit on this more in a future post, but I believe that these OS desktop GIS tools will be reused to open the way to specialized tools that allow most anyone to create geospatial data. They may not be recognized as ‘real’ GIS, indeed I think the ‘elect’ will try hard to defend their position, but they will be the key to making true architectures of participation around geospatial data.

So the seeds of change are there, and indeed projects like geonames, wikimapia, openstreetmap, wifimaps, plus all the KML layers available, are already showing results. I believe right now we’re in a time like Free Software before Linux. Building some small scale stuff, some of which will have value. But we’ve not yet hit on the appropriate social and technical architectures to make a huge success like Linux. Until then we’ve just got to keep experimenting, and even after that I’m sure more experimentation will take place, and it will be different for every project, just like we’ve learned much from Linus’s social innovations, yet no project functions exactly like it. But we will gather a suite of tools and social structures to allow replicable success in collaborative mapping, and before long it will snowball into something far bigger than most can imagine.


15 thoughts on “Why isn’t collaborative geodata a big deal already?

  1. Nice post Chris,

    I’d like to gauge your thoughts on the grey area that is the FOSS vs Commercial divide. Assuming the social and technical issues that you raised are overcome, where will that leave the value in geography?

  2. Well argued, comprehensively and concisely put Chris, as always.

    I’ve puzzled this question myself for almost ten years now and, for what it’s worth, I can make a few considered observations based on experience:
    – although the GIS “priesthood” is a pain it has no power outside it’s own church
    – the great desire is to have data not to create it
    – creating data requires intellectual effort (not just technological & physical)
    – the more effort it takes the more valuable it is
    – if data is valuable people want to steal it or sabotage it
    – data is not software ( a grey area, yes, but a simple reading of US law says “facts can’t be copyrighted” and many other jurisdictions follow)
    – a Spatial Data Infrastructure must have a viable governance regime otherwise it is just a bunch of technology looking for a purpose

    These are practical observations, not ideological stances. I do believe public SDI is a worthwhile, even essential, goal but I am equally sure that the reason it ain’t happening is not because the Kings and Bishops are against it.

  3. It’s all about content – without which, all of the geospatial collaboration and fusion in the world is useless. Toward content, we have the hype over SOA – yet that needs to get bumped up to the next level, of truly architected services, along with interoperable standards.

    As some agencies and organizations awaken to this, we will ever more enter an era with discoverable (with proper metadata) data services, sensors, realtime data and imagery, accessible lights-out, for seamless integration.

    The Open Source community historically has led the charge, but I predict we may see some surprises from the commercial sector coming as well…

  4. Chris, I agree that we’re about to overcome the cultural barriers (Kings and Bishops), but legal and logistical barriers remain.

    Consider Wikipedia: facts are not copyrightable, so contributors are free to draw upon just about any source. There aren’t any more barriers. Once you’re past the notion that only professional historians are qualified to research and interpret events, Wikipedia snowballs.

    It’s harder for geodata. We are often legally constrained from digitizing paper maps, and this means that we’ve got to re-survey the landscape. OpenStreetMap is trying to make it fun, but it’s still an expensive effort. There could yet be some brilliant techo-cultural inventions that overcome the logistical problem, but invention also takes time and energy.

  5. Chris,

    One of the most interesting sites I have seen recently and which is quite widely known in Singapore and Malaysia is http://www.malsingmaps.com, which has maps for all of Malaysia and Singapore that have been built voluntarily by GPS enthusiasts and can be downloaded for personal use. I spent last weekend in Singapore and used these maps for getting around. My and others’ experience suggest that they are high quality.

    Asia is one place that I would expect collaborative mappping to become a rapidly growing phenomenon because government mapping agencies here are exceedingly restrictive in allowing access to spatial data.


  6. Pingback: Re: Why isn’t collaborative geodata a bigger deal already? « Into The Pudding
  7. Hi Chris,
    The key for me is in your comment that ‘having(using)’ the data is what counts (is of value), not necessarily ‘making’ the data. The ‘mashup’ craze is case in point, it’s about using (or representing) data, not generating it.

    Will Carter has an interesting post in a similar vein (data creation vs distribution) that is broader than just geodata, going into video, photos, news.

    Collecting data is one thing, getting people to contribute data, but how that data is designed to be used, how far it can play outside the gate is what fascinates me.

  8. Pingback: Proprietary vs. FOSS in the Geospatial Web « Into The Pudding
  9. I just attended Map Africa and one of the things that I discovered is that spatial data collected by the National Government is free in digital form. I thibk this means that the gespatial indsurty in South Africa has a lot to look forward to.

  10. One of the greatest barriers that I’ve seen in this various fields of this industry, Chris, is that the emphasis is currently and primarily on data value. Meaning, that each commercial organization at the moment sees a limited range of value in the vertical market, which ultimately manifests a more corporate vantage to what will be produced and distributed.

    Of course, due to the fact that the production of useful data is in itself a time-consuming and thought-out process, some compensation shouldn’t be unexpected. It’ll be very rare to see data distributed in a manner that actually causes a vertical – and instead, I predict that as we all begin to ‘open up’ a little with each other and understand the value in contributing certain kinds of resources to anyone interested, that we’ll begin to see that newer range of vertical market liftoff.

    We had a brilliant example of this occuring during the dot-coms, when graphic artists and designers and programmers generally had little qualms about sharing through the Internet as its vehicle. It created cross-responsiveness, respect for organizations, and provided a channel to harvest the growth of those interested in coming into the industry.

    I’m perhaps an example of that way of thinking and education. The problem that I always observe, however, is that so many appear to become a little confused about where people like me might fit-in to the bigger picture. But if one only takes a step back from the screen long enough to think back through history of every major industry paradigm shift, the reality of what’s possible comes to ultimate acuity.

    This is when epiphanies are born.

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  12. Hi all

    I am a GIS application consultant and are in the process of mobilising corporate companies here in South Africa to colloborate and share Geodata on their Corporate Social Responsibility work. The cooperation and participation has been slow, but we have been able to comfirm commitment by means of a Memorandum of Understanding with certain confidentiality levels! I am quite excited about what we’ve been able to accomplish. We needed to, as you can expect, overcome most and even all of the obstacles stated above. We’re not out of the woods yet but are launching the system on a CSR Conference in less than a week. At this conference most of South Africa’s Corporate Companies (and some international onces with investment here) will attend and give input into the system. I will keep you updated if anyone is interesed. Regards Lizinda

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