Why government agencies should publish their geospatial data

To support the successful (and sustainable) release of data, we've put together a list of the top ten reasons why agencies should start publishing.

In recent years, we’ve seen more and more governments adopt open data mandates, which encourage — or instruct — agencies to release their data for public reuse. Overall, these mandates have proven to be an important catalyst for the release of more government data.

Mandates alone, though, aren’t nearly enough. In our experience, the successful (and sustainable) release of open data requires buy-in across multiple roles, particular from operational staff, budget owners, and senior leadership.

To assist advocates at government agencies make the case for open data publishing, we’ve put together the following list, drawn from our years of experience helping agencies publish their open data.

1. Better ROI for your data assets

Most public geospatial data is expensive to collect and produce, and gets relatively small levels of reuse—all of which adds up to a woeful return-on-investment. Done well, an investment in open data publishing leads to a large increase in reuse, which means a much improved return-on-investment for your agency’s data. This, in turn, helps justify further investment in data collection, maintenance, and distribution.

Given the significance of much authoritative government data — and the sheer range of potential users (outlined below) — ‘better ROI’ for your data also translates to improved economic, social, and environmental outcomes.

2. Lower transaction costs

Prior to publishing their data openly, most agencies make their data available ‘on request.’ This imposes a transaction cost on users from industry, government, and civil society looking to reuse that data in their projects—a transaction cost they need to pay for each and every data request. It also imposes a cost on the agency—both of staff time and of public reputation.

A data portal automates the distribution of geospatial data, which makes it much easier (and cheaper) for data reusers—from professionals to members of the public—to build new products and services using your data.

3. Reach new categories of users

When data is available ‘on request,’ the only people that can reuse government data are those that are ‘in the know.’ This usually translates to professionals with personal contacts and organizations that are large enough to incur the transactions cost involved. This obviously excludes the vast majority of potential users.

By making data open, you can ensure anyone with an internet connection can access and reuse your data. This will save existing users time and money; it will also open up your data to new kind of users, from professionals and policy makers to members of the public. Interestingly, a common response from our customers is that open data makes it easier for staff within government to access their own agency’s data.

A key — if slightly unsexy — aspect of this is format translation. By publishing on a platform that automates format translation, you can ensure that your geospatial data reaches multiple kinds of professional user.

From our experience at Koordinates, we’ve found that around a third of all users of geospatial data published on our platform is exported in DWG, a file format for CAD software used by engineers and architects. We also get exports in geospatial PDF, which helps designers get geospatial data into their design software. These are massive user groups that were previously unable to access and use geospatial data.

4. More private sector innovation

While advocates often refer to private sector innovation as a key outcome of open data, ‘openness’ on its own isn’t enough. In our experience, innovation follows reliability and ease-of-use—standards that the first generation of data portal didn’t always achieve. Over the last two years, this has begun to change, as a second generation of data portal has invested in better design, more advanced platform architecture — contributing to higher availability (consistently 99.95% here at Koordinates) — and more automated functionality.

Once these pieces are in place, companies start to build the consumption of open data into their business processes, specifically choosing to invest in products and services that build on open data. We’ve seen this with the LINZ Data Service, where companies across multiple sectors of the economy are routinely pulling geospatial data into their systems for innovation reuse. But it’s worth reiterating: unless it’s easy and they can trust the reliability of the source, private sector innovation — beyond some basic applications — is unlikely to occur.

5. Greater efficiency for your staff

As mentioned above, some members of the public are going to want to use your data, whether it’s open or not; and it’s going to be the job of your staff to manually process those requests. While it’s important to service these requests—indeed, these requests often fall under freedom of information legislation—your staff have higher value work to do. In sum, it’s much more efficient for both staff and end users to automate data distribution.

Done well, an investment in open data publishing leads to a large increase in reuse, which means a much improved return-on-investment for your agency’s data.

6. Greater government transparency

One of the main drivers for open data is that makes it easier for the public to see what government agencies actually do. Despite the significant resource invested in data collection and production, it can be very difficult to know what data government agencies hold. This obviously makes it impossible for users to request data, and can lead to data being produced or procured multiple times. Beyond data reuse, greater transparency can also assist with better and more informed public engagement during consultation processes.

7. Stronger public reputation

One of the benefits of publishing open data on a branded data service is that it improves your reputation with your public. As reuse increases, your data is included in a greater range of projects and — with Creative Commons licensing — always attributed to the government agency that produced it. It is also worth noting that it is becoming increasingly common for government agencies to publish their data, and increasingly noticeable when data is ‘closed.’

8. Better alignment with government policy

While government policy is rarely the sole driver in open data publishing, expectations from policy-makers are increasing, and it is becoming increasingly common for government to require agencies to report on progress. By publishing data openly, agencies can immediately implement open data policy, with built-in open licensing and open standards. At Koordinates, we also offer analytics on reuse, which makes it easy to report on impact and make informed investment decisions.

9. Immediate feedback loops with users

One piece of consistent feedback from our government customers is that publishing geospatial data opens up an incredibly valuable feedback loops with users. This helps agencies identify and develop relationships with key data users; it also helps improve data quality, as users report errors and suggest improvements.

As former manager of the LINZ Data Service, Jeremy Palmer, puts it, “As soon as we had this public facing platform, it automatically started changing the mindset of the organisation. With data becoming immediately accessible, we started getting feedback from customers in real-time.

“It changed how we were working with customers. We started doing continuous improvement in response to the feedback we were getting. We became even more energised and passionate about how we do things. We have a much stronger feedback loop between LINZ and our customers, to the benefit of both.”

10. It’s easier (and cheaper) than ever

The final reason to publish geospatial data openly is that it’s (now) easy. This hasn’t always been the case. The first generation of data portals tended to have poor design, inconsistent availability, and obscure enterprise-only pricing.

This is no longer the case. Today, government agencies that pursue data publishing will be benefiting from ten years of research and development. As Deputy Chief Executive of Land Information New Zealand, Jan Pierce, puts it, “It’s a lot easier than you think to get your data out there and getting it used. It wasn’t quite so easy five or ten years ago, but with the service offered by Koordinates today, it’s really easy to get your own data service.”

At Koordinates, we’ve benefitted hugely from working closely with government agencies like Land Information New Zealand, Manaaki Whenua, and the Ministry from the Environment—which has included hundreds of hours of user interviews. We’ve also worked to make our pricing transparent and scalable, so agencies can get started at a low monthly subscription and sustainably build their data publishing activities.