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Jeff Thurston — ” At the end of the day, any decision maker will tell you that health, transport, community and all kinds of other topics compete for budget and are important. How can you expect free geodata, when health services need to be delivered, education facilities need replacing, military needs to be funded and water needs to be monitored?”

Matt Ball — “Free federal data spurred free market competition. If the data were locked up to begin with, the market would never have taken off. There wouldn’t be the level of investment in technology, and we’d be much poorer in terms of both economic benefit and our knowledge of our world.”

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The ‘fee or free’ geospatial data debate has crossed 5 continents, spanned 4 decades, involved 5.5 million people, created a lot of high blood pressure in places, resulted in lots of research papers and hypothesis, made friends of enemies and enemies of friends and generally resulted in the development of new models for economic development and capitalism that would cause a good economist to scratch his head more than a few times.

I have come to the opinion that all geospatial endeavours begin as infants. As beginner’s, few know anything about geodata, mapping technologies, geo-referencing, image analysis, satellites or anything about geographic information systems (GIS) or computer-aided design (CAD). As time passes, the become more aware and things evolve, grow and change. As maturity increases, and expansion crosses through organisations, more people become aware of spatial information and data. This pathway can be seen time and time again, wherever spatial information and geodata are initiated.


If we look at the geospatial industry from its origins to date, many of us can recognise this transformation and the stages of growth moving from infancy to maturity. The needs of individuals working with geodata and organisational needs change as capacity grows and the rate of change increases as well.

It is much easier to acquire and maintain data for smaller countries, counties and projects than larger ones. Russia is not fully mapped with up-to-date data, nor is Canada the United States or Australia at the same scale as, for example, Great Britain – or of the same high quality.

If we wanted to build capacity, to get people and organisations thinking about spatial information and starting on the path, to maturity, then giving data away is a good approach to begin. In almost all cases, this data will be of coarse resolution and probably 1:20,000 or 1:50,000 in scale or greater.

As we move toward increasing maturity, then our capacity to not only ask more specific spatial information questions (and get the answers) increases, but the industry supporting that capacity expands and becomes ingrained into the policy and decision making arm of governments, organisations and businesses, and also grows. The questions we ask, using spatial information in maturing environments with geospatial tools and existing data, tend to be more complex: supporting models, spatial analysis, security systems and economic policies and other tasks.

These tasks, by their nature begin to demand better data, more accurate data and higher resolution data – if we are to make better decisions. Such decisions having less uncertainty and of the type we can depend upon, invest in and trust.

Scale and resolution

To achieve this level of maturity represents not just a willingness to use spatial information, but it means that the systems which drive the economy and their underlying processes embrace spatial information and geodata. It means that modern cities and organisations depend upon geospatial tools and technologies to exist and thrive.

At this level of functioning, spatial information and data is a requirement. It is no longer a wish to exist at 1:20,000 – it is a primary driver to a thriving economy. Without it a country is crippled. Without it a business is achieving mediocre performance. Without it sustainability cannot be achieved and without it, we cannot understand how we populate the planet and what we are doing.

Spatial is special – for all these reasons. If we fail to comprehend this, then we cannot see geodata and associated technologies and services as a differentiator, leading to sustainable living.

This is not only a strategic relationship but a critical one.

At the end of the day, any governor or mayor or CEO will tell you that health, transport, community and all kinds of other topics compete for budget and are important. How can we expect free geodata when primary transport is not free? How can you expect free geodata, when health services in communities need to be delivered? How can you expect free geodata, when education facilities need replacing and military needs have to be funded and water needs to be monitored, as examples?

One budget pie, with may pieces.

Yet, here I am suggesting that geospatial data is a primary need – as much as all these others!

So, how do we balance this? What is the priority?

The Future

The future of the geospatial industry (including the science part) will become much more real-time oriented. The data will be continuous and of high resolution – with high economic costs and returns. It is false to believe that consumer applications will not grow in complexity and that they will not demand more data too, for all the same reasons about capacity building I earlier explained.

Consequently, the geospatial future will require very expensive data to acquire, process and deliver. The tools for visualisation will also become more expensive.

All of this progress will pay salaries to people in research, operations, maintenance and IT and so on. Even at Microsoft and Google, the free use of services will, I think, likely change as consumers demand more and better. All of this is predictable as capacity builds, awareness grows and demands increase – setting sail towards a path of maturity.

However, at the end of the day we are still faced with environmental issues, solving spatial disease problems and water quality issues and many more. To tackle these tasks we will need more geodata, better geodata and more talented people to work on developing the solutions.

The question is not “pay or not for geodata?” The real question is, “do you want to solve the problems of an economically sustainable world or not?”

Geo-tools and geodata will help to overcome these issues. But people need to feed their families and pay mortgages etc. to make this happen as they do it. It is reasonable to expect they can solve these problems and fund their families.

Important issues to recognise

  • the data to drive many decision making models and operate the administration of a sustainable world is much more expensive than we sometimes realise

  • geodata and its creation competes with other basic sources of funding like health care, education and transportation

  • all European countries (and others) are not at the same level of maturity as others – they are tracking differently and in unique ways

  • geographic size matters – a whole lot; smaller countries can actually gain competitive ‘geo’ advantage

  • e-government is innately tied to geo-services; few if any government has developed a successful e-government yet

  • the world has not developed any means to sort good from bad or useless data, yet

  • on what basis do we assume free data creates wealth? Within Europe, the number of people willing to start a business is shrinking

The outcome of free data

While I recognise that free data can build capacity and is an important part of developing countries and projects. To compete against the world demands taking a leadership position. This means excellent data, excellent technology and excellent services – all coupled to policies aligned to produce excellent outcomes.

Do you want to be excellent?

In the United States, there’s a long history of free federal geospatial data, with the understanding that the taxpayers have paid for the collection of this information so the data belongs to the public. This data has been harnessed by commercial organizations to stand up services and add value to the data. This data has been used heavily by researchers to gain a better understanding of populations and our natural world. And this data has been used by governments to analyze constituents, infrastructure, public land and to prioritize investment of public funds.

Without the base foundation of consistent and universal free data for the entire country, the U.S. geospatial market wouldn’t be anywhere near as large, and we wouldn’t have the amount of services and technology innovation that we take for granted today.

Platform for Economic Expansion

By providing free data to the public and for reuse by industry, the foundation was laid for industry to add value and to improve upon the accuracy and scale of the free information. The free data provided a platform for companies to build a business model around, and in turn those companies raised interest and awareness in digital mapping so that a whole industry was born.

Free data primes the pump for better data and services. When faced with the realization that free data isn’t of a high enough resolution and accuracy for purpose, the user turns to geospatial providers to collect new information to their own specifications.

Private companies are constantly battling on the basis of quality, validity, accuracy and cost of geospatial data. The competition to create better data more quickly and cheaply for better sales margins has led to a great deal of innovation in both hardware and software. Without the incentive to grab more money from customers by doing things better and faster, we wouldn’t see the richness of data collection options that we have today.

Geospatial data is expensive to collect and maintain. Many governments insist on charging something for their data as a means for cost recovery, but this model hampers data use and doesn’t come close to the economic rewards of free market access.

Back in 1996, a company called MapQuest harnessed the U.S. Census Bureau’s TIGER files to stand up the first online mapping and driving directions website. The site quickly grew a large online following and the company was one of the first major Internet winners when it was bought for $1.1 Billion USD by America Online. That one valuation and transaction raised millions of dollars in capital gains taxes, and there are plenty more geospatial companies that have filled the tax coffers based upon their successful performance.

Free Leads to Free

Up until the online mapping sites such as MapQuest, the free geospatial data was turned into commercial data with a cost. Distributing free data for free just didn’t have a business model until the Internet arrived and traffic translated into advertising revenue. The success of this model and the value of local search have spawned a great number of competing web mapping sites.

Mapping is a key component of the local search market. The market for local search is advertising driven with companies willing to spend considerable funds to be the first listing that consumers see when searching for a product locally. That market is estimated at more than $60 Billion annually in the United States alone. This market provides great incentive for richer mapping experiences that connect customers with the items that they want.

The considerable investments by competing companies (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, etc.) to create platforms with distinct offerings means a considerable investment in data and technology that benefits geospatial service companies. I’ve heard that Microsoft alone has invested more than $500 million USD in geospatial data acquisition for Microsoft Virtual Earth. Those investment dollars are considerable and are repeated across much of the free online consumer map data and service space.

The discussion of the economies of free just received a big boost in awareness through a feature by Chris Anderson in the latest issue of WIRED magazine that’s titled, Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business. According to Anderson, “the difference between one penny and free is the difference between having to make a conscious decision or to just do it.”

The fact that we’ve had barrier-free access to geospatial information has led to a great many commitments and investments by both commercial and public entities to create systems and solutions that provide insight and value for their customers. These investments have also created enormous value and tax revenue for the federal government. I doubt that anyone in government has adequately analyzed and estimated the value of free geospatial data weighed against cost, but it certainly represents a huge return on investment.

Coming Full Circle

This past week, there was an announcement that the U.S. Geological Survey would use Tele Atlas map data. According to the notice, “the USGS will deliver Web-based 1:24,000-scale maps containing the U.S. National Grid in conjunction with Tele Atlas map data, to support the efforts of the USGS serving the emergency and first responder communities.”

This development brings that initial federal investment full circle. The availability of free data created an industry that can produce data of high quality and accuracy at a national scale that is cheaper for the government to purchase than to create themselves. This shift away from the government as arbiter of data quality has far-reaching implications that can only benefit geospatial technology companies. Future federal spending on geospatial data will almost certainly include a larger portion of public/private partnership for data creation going forward.

Free federal data spurred free market competition. If the data were locked up to begin with, the market would never have taken off. There wouldn’t be the level of investment in technology, and we’d be much poorer in terms of both economic benefit and our knowledge of our world.





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