Is It Time For a Data Manifesto?

By John Fisher

This is the first of a series of articles on spatial data and data management issues. The articles will cover a broad range of topics and are intended to be provocative. Your feedback is encouraged. It is through open dialogue on these issues that we will move forward as an industry.

Like spatial technology, spatial data has been slow to gain acceptance in the mainstream of information technology. While this appears to be finally changing, there is still a long way to go. As an industry, we have not been good at marketing ourselves to the larger world. We have tended to talk in techno-speak and to evangelize to the few, rather than immerse ourselves in the general corporate world and convince them of the fundamental importance and the ubiquitous applicability of spatial data and technology.

Is what we do as an industry really that important or that universally applicable? Yes. Since the beginning of human civilization spatial data has played a central role in exploration, discovery, economic development, war and peace. Spatial information has often been considered of such strategic value that it has been purposely falsified (a legacy which lives on in many eastern bloc countries).The quality of the spatial data at one's disposal has often spelled the difference between success and failure.

Location is the one and only universal index. Almost all things can be referenced by the simple expedient of spatial coordinates. Also, the relationship between two or more things is often affected directly or indirectly by the spatial relationship between them. We all know this. It is what we do. What we need to do more effectively is show the rest of the world how important this is and show them how to use it effectively.

Good spatial data can be a powerful coordinating force. Bad or inconsistent spatial data can have the opposite effect (witness the confusion and grief caused by conflicting spatial data in use by the different emergency response organizations at the World Trade Center on 9/11).

Data has traditionally been created for specific purposes or mandates - such as address management, vehicle routing, presentation of points of interest, emergency services, infrastructure planning, imagery analysis, weather planning, traffic services, or natural resource management. In the past, these needs have been deemed too disparate to make a consistent, common base possible. Can, for example, the engineer's need for localized accuracy be balanced with the planner's need for broad coverage and reasonable cost? Has technology and data availability progressed to the point where a unified base is achievable? Is it time for a "Data Manifesto" of sorts?

Some fundamental questions arise - how accurate is accurate enough? How complete is complete enough? What specific content is most important? Should the specifications be predicated on the criteria and functional requirements of the most demanding applications - assuming that if we meet those requirements, all other less demanding applications will be accommodated? What do you think? What are the currency, coverage, correctness, completeness, consistency and specific content requirements of your application? What, if anything, prevents you from moving to a standardized base? Are you there already? If so, what are you using?

Over the course of this series of articles, I will explore this and other issues in detail. Your comments and feedback on specific questions and issues raised in this article and those you would like to see addressed in this series are most welcome. I encourage you to submit your feedback to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Published Wednesday, March 12th, 2003

Written by John Fisher

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