What government agencies oughta do …

I chanced upon a couple interesting blog entries up on Ogle Earth today Screenshot of Explore, from Mapperz.comabout “closed” geo-portals offered by government geo-agencies–like France’s IGN Geoportail and the UK Ordnance Survey’s Explore. France’s portal offers 2D and 3D views, while the UK’s Explore portal allows users to share routes.

A quote from OgleEarth (Stefan Geens):

Géoportail certainly is much more impressive that the UK Ordnance Survey’s “outreach” effort, but both are just as closed in a time when everything online is moving towards open, interoperable, mashable standards. KML is now an OGC standard, most recently embraced by Microsoft. Where is the support By IGN and OS? Why can’t I export anything to mash up? Where are the APIs? The USGS, on the other hand, gets it. …

… National GIS agencies should concentrate on getting the best GIS content, acting as a repository for it, and making it accessible to all. Competing with Google and Microsoft to provide end-user services based on this content is a waste of public resources, especially as Google and Microsoft will always do it better.

Stefan has a good point: have the government agencies considered what their people want to do with the data? Should government agencies focus on creating new user portals for viewing data, providing collaboration portals, or should they be trying to make their data more open and “mashable”, taking advantage of Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) standards and best practices? Also, do government agencies inevitably produce inferior interfaces? Should they even waste taxpayer money on developing custom mapping interfaces?

I would argue that both openly accessible data distributed via open methods like KML and a usable government access portal (that includes open features like GeoRSS feeds) are needed. There are developers and dataheads who will want to mash up data with other data sources, but the vast majority of the world doesn’t have a clue what a mashup is, so they need that friendly portal. 

I agree with Stefan that Microsoft and Google are always going to “do it better”–that doesn’t mean government geo-agencies shouldn’t provide a public portal to access the data. What it does mean is they should take advantage of APIs and other resources offered by Google et al. in building those portals. By using commercially-developed (free), industry standard mapping APIs and by paying attention to usability, perhaps they can avoid experiences like Stefan described when he tried out the UK’s Explore tool:

A couple of things quickly became evident. The mapping area is really small. The maximum scale is much lower than what we’re used to elsewhere. Map drawing tools are very rudimentary, and you can’t edit submitted routes. You can’t import routes. You can’t export routes. By-now standard web-map conventions such as using the scroll wheel to zoom aren’t supported. Mapperz has his own list of limitations.

In sum, if this were a private initiative, I’d refrain from reviewing it, as it would compare unfavorably to the competition. But this is tax-payers’ money at work, so the larger question needs to be asked: What is a government agency doing entering a market niche that is serviced much better and for free by the private sector?

Good question, Stefan.

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