Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Open government spatial data: do it but don’t do it badly

I’m in favour of open government spatial data, I really am, but for the love of all things holy, why is it done so badly?

I don’t mean “badly” as in “you just have to know X and it will be fine”. I mean “badly” as in “Australia’s governments are embracing open data with unusable agglomerations that look like they were Web sites designed in 1993”.

The idea, it seems, is to start by creating portals that provide single-point-of-access to data that used to be held in different agencies – or still are held in those agencies. So what do you end up with? Generally, an unnavigable shambles that takes ages to navigate, and when you get somewhere, it was barely worth it.

Let’s get specific for a moment. Here’s one of the ACT Government’s datasets:

This is “Geographic data for the ACT, including ACT Legislative Assembly electorate boundaries, and boundaries for the Territory, districts and suburbs. There is also data for water feaures and Gazetted Feature Names.”

Well, as you can see, the display is less-than-useful. Too much of the screen real estate is devoted to everything but the map. And what does this page actually do? It takes a few already-available data sets, serves them out of (I think) an Arcgis server, and overlays it on a Google Map.

All of this is pretty, but to someone who does GIS, it’s useless. I’d still have to download the shapes to do anything with them. Now, take a look at the bit I circled in the screen-shot.

To add a dataset layer, you need to know the dataset name – which means you need to be already familiar with the metadata. If you wanted – who knows why – to add bus-stops to this not-useful display, you need to know exactly what the bus-stop dataset is called.

Once you zoom in, the profound uselessness of the display becomes apparent:


Yes, the download becomes convenient. And thankfully, it’s at least organised well: the individual layers aren’t blended into one set of vectors, as I’ve known some of the idiots of online mapping to do.

And there’s this, from the bus-stop data table:

OK, it’s a simple parse error in the data import – but since it hasn’t been noticed, and recurs in other data sets, it suggests two things: (1) nobody ran a simple database query to see if their data import worked right, and (2) there aren’t that many users.

It’s not just the ACT, and it’s probably unfair of me to single the ACT out, but I’m not going to unpick the whole country. The ACT is at worst typical and better than some. Queensland has some dataset directory entries which, after you’ve clicked through a few navigation screens, turn out to be empty.

The thing is this: if you’re not going to make a very good directory, then merely doing an Open Government something because it’s the flavour of the month is a waste of money.

If I want electoral boundaries, Google will find them for me; ditto whatever street-level data exists. Topographic data in Australia is easy to find, thanks to Geosciences Australia, as is a lot of other spatial data.

And there’s the challenge, really: governments publishing the data sets aren’t spending their money wisely if their spiffy portals deliver results slower than Google searches. And map tools that do nothing but offer a passive display of one layer over another layer over another layer – are doing nothing but delivering up license fees to vendors.

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