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Lessons Learned to Create the Open GIS Platform

For government, it's easier than ever before to publish authoritative data. Below, three open data experts share how.

In our latest GovLoop guide, Open Data and GIS: Better Understanding Our World, we explore a crucial element of the open data movement: geographic information systems (GIS). Time and again, we have seen how GIS facilitates government to visualize, question, analyze, interpret and understand data, and reveal complex relationships, patterns and trends.

But at the Esri DC R&D Center, a talented team is looking at ways to not only leverage the power of GIS, but also open data. The Esri DC R & D Center is focused on creating, designing and developing cutting edge web applications to make GIS more accessible and help drive better public sector decisions.

The team is leading many of Esri’s Open Data Initiatives, and their work is a reminder that for GIS professionals today, the technology to build open data systems has become easier to use than ever before.

“[GIS technology is] well established, it’s secure, advancing open data is now about relationships and those are things that take longer. You can deploy an open data site in a minute, but you need to get the design and policy right which can take days or weeks to approve, because those are things that allow organizations to make it their own and help tell the stories of their data,” said Andrew Turner, CTO of the R&D Center. Turner oversees the overall direction of the office and helping to build open platforms for GIS – whether that is open data, open source, open API and web GIS.

The R&D Center’s work is imperative to help organizations capitalize on one of the major benefits of an open GIS platform: easily pull data without having to replicate information. For instance, think about the GIS work that typically occurs at the state level. Often, state governments manage GIS data, and also oversee GIS data from various counties and cities. In the past, data would be transferred as needed to agencies. But, by leveraging a common platform, information can easily be pulled so that all GIS data is consolidated into one repository, and eliminates the need to replicate data. This leads to enormous cost savings, efficiencies and boosts collaboration efforts.

As is the case with many technology adoption strategies, having a champion can accelerate open GIS initiatives. “We are definitely seeing a lot of individuals who want to take initiative, they just feel that its right and they want to do it,” said Daniel Fenton, product engineer, Esri.

And for government agencies today, the GIS department is uniquely positioned to take on this role as data champions. For decades they have been managing data and conducting spatial analysis. Although the data management has primarily been limited to mapping, GIS professionals often have an expertise they can share with their agency on how to manage volumes of authoritative information they collect.

“Often you find that forward thinking people in the GIS department are talking to the chief information officer and chief data officer, and realize that they actually already have a lot of the data, so instead of moving the data around, they work together,” said Turner.

But becoming a data champion also means that industry must support and understand the concerns faced by government. That’s why Esri is working with community leaders and clients to understand their demands – and build solutions based on market needs.

“Being aware on what users need is essential, and that means being involved in our local community, so we have partnerships with 1776 DC and are staying connected with certain stakeholders and the people that are producing sites and consuming data,” said Courtney Claessens, product engineer, Esri.

Open data initiatives have the power to connect government agencies in meaningful ways, and help make information more accessible and usable to the public. As Fenton reminds us, it’s essential to consider how the end user is going to access information, to be sure that it is usable and searchable. “You may understand how your files are named; but once your data is open it’s going to be seen by users that are unaware of your naming scheme. So think about how your data is going to be viewed from the perspective of outsiders with no GIS experience.”

Also essential to make sure data is usable is to be sure that data is updated and timely, and to keep track of the changes. “Make sure that the lineage of your data is clear and how it has evolved over time. So if you're working on a dataset and return in three or four years, you need the proper metadata to know the context of it how it has changed, who's been working on it,” said Claessens. “Overall, it's quality over quantity, you can have tons of data sets, but if you don't know what they are, then no one is going to use them.”

The ultimate goal is that by making it easy for government organizations to open there data, agencies will move towards creating more robust standards within government. “We know the benefits of open data and are believers in it,” Claessens.

Open data is transforming our world, read our guide to learn more.

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