Cooperation and Collaboration: Data Governance Lessons We Learned from…Sesame Street?

August 30, 2023

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 If you told 5 year old me that a Sesame Street skit would stick with me many years later (and in a very different context), I’d have thought you were a crazy old person. Big props to public television for creating highly memorable and timeless lessons about life, work, and everything in between in their children’s programming. Cooperation makes it happen.

As geospatial professionals, we’re building a collaborative community around tools, projects, ideas and problems. Local, state, and federal governments collaborate  to ensure that residents of our communities have the best lives possible. We recognize that while we may have different interests and end goals, no one entity can do all of the work by itself, so we develop opportunities to cooperate. 

As data creators, GIS folks often build datasets for our own purposes, but we are usually keen to share that data with others whenever possible. We know the effort that goes into developing datasets, and generally want people to use it for another purpose that may or may not be directly related. If we can help solve each other's problems, we’re doing a better job. We can see how this works with efforts like OpenStreetMap where not only are many people coming together to develop data, but it’s a cooperative effort between professional GISers and lay-people.

I’m personally a fan of not having to reinvent the wheel! Creating a data catalog and quality metadata helps organizations manage their data, an important factor in the cooperation business. When we know why a dataset was created and how it was created, we can make thoughtful decisions about future uses and appropriateness for our specific need(s). A data catalog provides everyone in and outside the organization with a single source of truth as to the ownership, creation, and lineage of our data. Any future questions about the data or its creators is clearly documented for further research or elaboration. Done right, data catalogs are the perfect example of organization-wide cooperative effort to make data more available to a wide variety of users and teams. 

Collaboration. Working together.

As a digital attendee of the Esri User Conference (UC) this year, I spent a couple of days watching the Plenary videos and the other recorded sessions. I noticed that the word used many times in these sessions was “collaboration,” and not “cooperation,” which started me thinking about the differences between the two words, and whether one was more appropriate than the other.

After I let the idea percolate in my head, I realized that cooperation and collaboration are both used to describe common efforts by diverse groups of people.  Cooperation focuses more on common efforts with individual ownership and outcomes (like the data catalog). Collaboration, on the other hand, implies creating something where ownership, responsibility, and outcomes are shared by the group. Ultimately, both are about partnerships and coming together with the idea that more resources are better, and will yield a better outcome whether the work results in one outcome or many.

I’ve written before about collaboration in GIS and how we saw a lot of collaboration between different jurisdictions during the Pandemic. At the 2023 Esri UC, we saw a more diverse example, including presentations like the one by The City of Cambridge, which showcased the resident, public agency, and academic collaborations that help to keep the city safe, cool in this era of climate change, and able to manage data being created by multiple sources. 


Another example of collaboration was the Electrify America presentation in which we learned about Electrify America’s work with state and territorial governments to support the United States Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration’s plan to “strategically deploy electric vehicles…” all over the country. This collaboration is a public-private partnership to build North America’s largest open, ultra-fast charging network, and as the presenter says: it can’t be done alone. I would go a step further to say that cooperation isn’t enough in this situation. Collaboration is critical in order for the team to build, manage, and fund this large-scale site suitability project. In order to succeed, it has to be done by all parties together and with the same goal. 

Data governance is essential to successful cooperative and collaborative projects in GIS.  We use what we know to shape questions and find solutions; however, it is critical that we establish standards for the language (terms) that we use and the data that we create. Public entities partner with private companies and academic institutions to create data and solve problems.  Data governance including data dictionaries and metadata standards help us to ensure clear definitions and create strong frameworks that we can build on for our current and future cooperative and collaborative efforts. The more cooperation and collaboration, the more potential there is for challenges with data sharing and use. We must build strong data governance frameworks for strong, consistent partnerships. Working together “begins with establishing clear definitions and business terms across the organization through data definitions, data quality and compliance to data management policies, and standards for a specific data domain.” It’s not enough to just say “hey, let’s work together,” collaborative teams must explicitly lay out a plan and build a governance framework to ensure that what we start gets finished to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. Building a data catalog, data dictionaries for all project datasets, and identifying stakeholder roles and responsibilities are keys to successful collaboration. 

Ways We Can Work Together

The first step in working together is to reach out to our partners and see where our interests intersect. Next, we need to figure out what tools and resources we have at hand that support our work. Maybe we don’t have the right tools at hand, but they are out there and it’s usually a question of looking around. To get you started:

OpenStreetMap is one of the most well-known ways for professional GIS and lay-people in GIS to collaborate on building data for use by anyone with an internet connection. 

The District of Columbia, Fairfax County, Virginia, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and many other government agencies at local, state, and federal levels make much of their data available to anyone interested in using existing resources along with their own data. (Check out for more resources!)

Esri and QGIS both offer the ability to collect field data (with some additional work) and then publish the results as part of an online visualization that can be interactive.

Tools like Felt and Mapbox extend the capabilities of out-of-the-box interactive GIS.

Do you have a favorite collaboration tool? Let me know!


The only limit to our ability to cooperate and collaborate is our imagination. In the words of that earworm, er, song: Together we can make our [GIS] grow!


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