Ten Things You Need to Know About Esri's Open Data Initiative

February 27, 2014

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It’s Young

At the Federal GIS Conference (video, blog post) and in its press release, Esri introduced its Open Data Initiative, an effort to encourage and enable the creation, publishing, easy access and use of open geospatial data. The preview revealed some of the upcoming capabilities. What will be included with the first set of tools and how they will work is still in flux.

Organizations are Already Sharing Open Data

Local, state and federal agencies as well as a variety of private and non-profit organizations worldwide already share open data. They do it in simple ways, such as providing downloadable shapefiles from a static webpage. They do it in more complex ways by publishing Web services. They do it using Esri and other GIS tools.

The new capabilities that Esri is planning will simplify these sometimes cumbersome manual processes and perhaps offer better solutions to both open data publishers and open data users.

Additions to ArcGIS Online for Organizations

The capabilities announced at the Federal GIS Conference are not a new product, but rather additional features for ArcGIS Online for Organizations. There are no extra fees or credits required to use these capabilities, but charges for licensing the ArcGIS Online software and credits for loading, preparing and hosting the data continue to accrue.

Due This Spring

The new capabilities are expected this spring, but it does not sound like they will arrive with the release planned for March. Turner’s colleague Bill Green, who spoke at this week’s NSGIC meeting, suggested a March or April release.

Open Data Can be Hosted on ArcGIS Server or ArcGIS Online

Datasets currently hosted by a local or cloud implementation of ArcGIS Server or on ArcGIS Online are candidates to be published as open data via ArcGIS Online.

A Recipe for Open Data

  1. Make the data public. This is already an ArcGIS Online capability.
  2. Add the data to an open data group. An open data group is a new kind of group that helps to distinguish that these datasets are meant to abide by open data principles and that people in the group can add datasets to the group to make them open data.
  3. Publish a site for the open data. This site will include “durable” (permanent, bookmarkable) URLs for groups of datasets, individual datasets, individual features in datasets and, perhaps not in the first implementation but down the road, queries against open datasets. Ideally, this means that a search via a favorite search engine should turn up the open data of interest.

Open Datasets Have Licenses

ArcGIS Online datasets can already be assigned licenses. These licenses will be the ones datasets carry with them as they are published as open data. Esri hopes to include the most popular, well-structured open data licenses (Open Database License, Creative Commons, Public Domain) and is looking to the community to determine what others should be recognized. Open data publishers can, if needed, customize specialized licenses.

Datasets Can be Downloaded in Open Formats and via Services

Once a dataset is published as open data, visitors to the published site can download it as shapefiles (Esri, pdf), KML (OGC encoding standard), CSV (a community format), GeoJSON (an open community standard) and as GeoServices (that’s the one that caused some discussions last year).

As with licenses, the goal here is to support the most popular open formats within ArcGIS Online. There are other tools including Esri’s Interoperability Extension (based on Safe Software’s FME) if other formats are needed.

Once datasets are published as open data they are expected to follow open data principles (such as those of Tim Berners-Lee). So, for example, an open data publisher cannot restrict the formats in which data can be downloaded, nor restrict which geographic areas can be downloaded or restrict how much data can be downloaded.

Open Data Can Cascade

It’s possible for one organization to share other open data valuable to its users alongside its own data within ArcGIS Online. If, for example, a partnership like the Chesapeake Bay Program decides to publish some of its datasets as open datasets via ArcGIS Online, it’s possible for those to be found and added to the State of Maryland’s ArcGIS Online open datasets. Those in turn could be aggregated up to the NOAA Coastal Services Center ArcGIS Online open data site. The datasets would all be sourced back to their original authoritative source, with their original license, but be findable, accessible and useable up the data food chain.

What’s Next?

After making open data easy for publishers to publish and easy for the public and developers to find and use, Esri will tackle a second challenge: enabling citizens, governments and the private sector to collaborate. Cities might want feedback mechanisms to correct or enhance data holdings, while citizens may want tools to visualize and analyze the datasets. The vision of the Open Data Initiative is to help make all three groups active participants in their local, regional and world communities.


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