Monday, March 2, 2009

Transparency Camp09: Mapping Session

Transparency Camp is a bar camp for open government advocates (government representatives, technologists, developers, NGOs, wonks and activists) to share knowledge on how to use new technologies to make our government transparent and meaningfully accessible to the public. Andrew Turner of GeoCommons and I ran a session on mapping, public participation and open data. Andrew avoided the "powerpoint" approach did a wonderful job of moderating the session and made it very interactive. He captured the discussion by dividing it into two sections Mapping and GeoData and Solutions.  Mapping and GeoData was further divided into two categories: Difficulties and Goals. Solutions was the beginning of a mind map I've summarized the session roughly according to Andrew's categories of Difficulties and Goals. Data input and output The conversation started out with common frustrations which can be divided into two problems: getting data in and getting maps out. Getting data into a mapping interface remains problematic. The session members commonly used csv, shape files and geotiffs to overlay on a base map source such as Google Maps. While data is available from the web sites and from government agencies, the problem is that the data is poorly described. Data sources from different government offices are unique bit contain common data. In addition, the usefulness of a particular data set is not known until they have completed the entire process of building a map. The primary output problem was printing maps. On-line mapping applications do not provide an easy way to create printed maps, especially large format (D or E size) maps. There was also a concern about licensing and copyright when printing maps from an on-line source such as Google Maps. 'Easy' was the word of day and the goal with regards to data input and out put. The ability to preview the data or even have meaningful metadata (i.e. fitness of use ranking, popularity, etc) was needed. Also the problem of having multiple schemas of similar data could be addressed with a common community schema. To make it easy, there could be a graphical tool that lets one map a data set to the community schema by simply drawing lines between two fields. Motivations Session members said that their motivation for mapping was to tell a story and that maps were a way to tie data to communities. Maps make data real and concrete and inherently provoke a visceral reaction. Maps are used as an exploratory interface so that patterns of data can be revealed. Maps are used as a way to plan, coordinate and share information through a variety of contexts. A distinction was made about different contexts; for example a map showing the locations of services did not work because it didn't readily answer the question of "how close is the service." In that case proximity was more important actual location. Andrew summed it up nicely, "Geographic doesn't always mean cartographic." Although, most members agreed that visualization of location was the primary use of maps, it was obvious that they also used maps in a more sophisticated way to communicate the implications of data. Current web mapping platforms remain focused on the "where is" aspect of maps. The next generation web mapping platforms should implement the basic cartographic thematic forms of isopleths, chloropleths, dot density, and proportional symbols. Open data and fear A good part of the discussion was about open data and why organizations did not want to release it.  Fear was the main reason cited for not releasing open data; below is a list of fears:
  • liability
  • may expose problems with the data
  • data may be used against an organization
  • some organizations fear that it will reveal patterns of behavior that will be criticized
  • concerns about real time location/tracking of archeological sites or endangered species
  • security and privacy are of concern
What they really want
To summarize, here is want they wanted:
  • data preview 
  • a common way to view data from different sources (a normalization tool)
  • making sophisticated maps guided by wizards
  • printed map output, or press ready map output for brochures
  • the applications should be low cost or free
  • require minimal staff training
  • the amount of time spent on maintenance should be low
  • use a minimal amount of bandwidth (interesting comment that hints at an interest in hosted solutions)

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