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Using GIS to Power the Open Data Movement

This is the second installment in a two-part series covering GovLoop and Esri’s virtual training event on open data and GIS. The first installment highlights a number of success stories at the state and federal levels.

“I see the role of GIS as being able to make sense of [health] data. A lot of the data that is out there is being collected from different systems, at different scales for different purposes. One of the only common unifying factors in any of these datasets is geography.”

– Jared Shoultz, Health Technology Specialist at Esri

On Thursday, February 20, GovLoop and Esri hosted a virtual training session to discuss the role of geographic information systems (GIS) in open health data. Using a battery of case studies, the webinar sought to identify a best practice approach to opening public data through GIS.

You can view the archived version of the webinar here. The following is a short recap of the rich question and answer session that took place after the training session.

The Participants

Thursday’s discussion was moderated by Patrick Fiorenza, Senior Research Analyst at GovLoop, and included the following industry experts:

Angelica Baltazar, Health and Human Services Industry Support Specialist, Esri

Jared Shoultz, Health Technology Specialist, Esri

Chris Thomas, Director of Government Markets, Esri

Ingredients to a Successful Geography-Based Open Data Program

Esri was able to locate a number of successful examples of early-adopters, from the State of New Mexico to the USDA. But what do these organizations have in common? What is needed to begin the process of opening your data and presenting it in a meaningful way to those who need it most?

Strong Leadership

One of the unifying characteristics of the success stories highlighted is the existence of a ‘champion’ – an advocate for open data, of course, but also of integrating the geospatial element to that data. According to Jared Shoultz, who at one time served in the State of South Carolina’s Department of Heath and Environmental Control, “You need someone who understands the value of geographic information systems and its use in integrating and leveraging data.”

The ’70 Percent Solution’

At the same time, leaders must go beyond advocacy, especially since the fields of open data and public-facing GIS applications are still so new. “You have a lot of organizations green lighting these programs,” explained Chris Thomas, adding, “But it takes an individual to say, ‘I’m not going to wait around for people to work out every detail of every question that can be raised. I’m just going to push this out there.’” Rather than wait for everything to be 100 percent complete, successful projects move forward and work out the proverbial ‘last 30 percent’ as they go.

Use the Tools Available

If there is one takeaway from the presentation, it is that Esri’s ArcGIS Online platform has a number of tools to empower agencies to create their own apps and web products for a GIS-powered open data program. This was the case for the State of New Mexico. “Instead of going out there and trying to build a bunch of stuff from scratch, [New Mexico] took the development tools that Esri had created, combined it with the templates and pushed this stuff out there with a nominal effort and nominal cost,” Thomas said.

Identify a Problem

As with many technological solutions, the best approach is to find a problem or a requirement and figure out how the technology can help you address it. This is in contrast to simply applying the technology broadly and without a specific plan. For example, the non-profit WorkHands was established by in order to connect blue-collar workers with jobs around the country. Using public data and GIS, WorkHands is able to map out opportunities in a user-friendly, visual way. The technology allows WorkHands to flourish, but the motivation was born out of the frustration of a few employment office workers in New York City. “They were frustrated that they were unable to answer the most common question of the people who came in, so they quit their jobs and they started a company,” Thomas explained. Fortunately, given the prevalence of GIS and open data movements in agencies, people don’t have to quit their jobs anymore. They have the tools to solve the problems in-house.

Challenges to Open Data in Health

One of the biggest challenges to open data movements in the health and human services field revolves around privacy. As most practitioners can attest, one of the biggest concerns about putting data out there to be shared with the community is protecting the identities of those they serve. There is a constant struggle between recognizing the value of data in the aggregate, but also understanding the risks of exposing individual, private information to the public.

Yet, this is not always the case. As more agencies take inventory of their data, it is clear that not all data contains identifiable client information. Instead, it is location driven and can be used to help others, either across the agency or in communities. “The very first step is to take inventory of what they [public organizations] truly have on hand, then they can very slowly start to define what is safe and – within their own regulations – figure out what they feel comfortable putting out,” Angelica Baltazar noted.

Resources for Developers

There are two sides to the open data movement: production and consumption. Often ignored on the consumption side are the developers and startups who want to use public data to provide services in a form that may not yet exist – such as the WorkHands website. Esri has a number of resources for this group.

  • ArcGIS Online for Developers: This site contains open APIs, sample datasets and code sets, and even packets for for ArcGIS Online developers to to get started with little or no cost
  • Esri for GitHub: If you can’t find what you are looking for on the developers site, chances are you can find it on Esri for GitHub.

“We are really committed to startups – we want them to be successful and to be able to leverage the open data that is out there,” Thomas said.

Additional Resources

For answers to additional questions, such as the role of big data, mobile technologies, costs and the future of GIS in open data, listen to the archived version of the webinar here.

GovLoop and Esri both have a number of resources to help you learn more about the possibilities of merging open data campaigns with GIS initiatives:

Event sponsored by:

Esri was founded in 1969, it realized even then that geographic information system (GIS) technology could make a difference in society. GIS helps people to solve problems at local, regional, national, and global scales. Access maps and apps at ArcGIS.com. Be sure to check out all the
 GIS resources produced by Esri and GovLoop.

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