Is Fast Better Than Free?

The business case for using paid data services over free resources.

Only the best data will do, however, Experian Data Quality's recent “Create Your Ideal Data Quality Strategy” study indicates 92% of companies surveyed are experiencing difficulty with data management, 50% acknowledge that inadequate data quality negatively impacts their business. In the specific case of geospatial data, another dimension is added to the complexity of data that can challenge the best of us.

As discussed last week, bad data can cost you a lot, even if its free. A few questions came up: Where does spatial data come from? How does it get created? How does a commercial organization acquire it?  Where critical decisions need to be made, it's critically important to make those decisions on a solid foundation of facts.

Where does spatial data come from?
  1. You can capture information yourself, say, a list of customers' addresses, and make a map from the points.  That's a super simple example that most companies can handle on their own. 
  2. Some data comes from public sources like aggregated census data or large scale surveys of geographic features like the NTS (National Topographic System). The data tends to be an overview and not particularly detailed. 
  3. More complex, detailed and time sensitive data with frequent updates (i.e. the good stuff you need to do your job) is often produced using aerial imagery in combination with ground truthing to accurately identify and verify land use types and ground features. Geospatial experts keep these databases up to date as a commercial service for other businesses to consume.
How does spatial data get created?
  1. From a list of addresses, you can find the x,y coordinates using GIS software and plot those locations on the map. Voila! Map complete.
  2. The public data providers tend to produce choropleth style maps, where regional characteristics about populations are shown as uniform over an area like a township. Topo series start from aerial or satellite imagery, but may have a long production time.  The current Ontario Base Mapping, referred to as the 1983 series, was produced between 1977 and 2000 for example.
  3. Features that are visible on the ground in up to date aerial imagery can be digitized into points, line, and polygons by either a GIS user identifying the features visually and tracing them, or by using moving window algorithms to identify pathways, barriers and areas of homogenous land use automatically. An expert user can "train" their software by manually selecting known features from the imagery, then letting the software identify other areas with similar characteristics automatically. FBS employs a team of photogrammetrists working with our secret sauce techniques to orthorectify imagery and pick out break lines using a combination of automation and manual identification.
What's the best way to acquire spatial data for industrial and commercial applications? 
  1. This is the question where we get down to brass tacks, how to get it and how much does it cost? As mentioned, you can create it yourself tailor made for your project, with just an investment of your time. You just need to estimate the value of your time to determine how much the data really costs.  If you lack the skills to extract the information you need from the data you already have, you might also be adding the cost of hiring a few data crunchers for a special project.
  2. Head over to a site like GeoGratis, which translates as free geo, however, when we consider how much our time is worth, it does cost us something.  I tried to locate some elevation data for an area near Milton and it took 37 clicks to get to the point of sending a request for data produced at 1:50,000. 37 clicks!  Request! 1:50,000! Free data may further hurt the project while you shut down to wait for approval and delivery. It may also not pay off if it's not detailed enough to show you what you wanted to know.
  3. Our customers at Golder have confirmed that fast is preferred to free, and that is exactly why they use MapWarehouse. Paying to get the data immediately is less expensive in the long run than spending time on sourcing generic, low resolution data for free. The same data on MapWarehouse was produced at 1:10,000 and was available basically immediately.

You've started your project, you know generally what you're looking for with regard to spatial data. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Am I qualified and skilled enough to establish and maintain my own GIS?
  • How much is my time worth spent on researching data? 
  • How much time do I have for the research phase of the project?
  • What is my data budget?
  • How good does the data need to be?

You'll get to the right decision.  MapWarehouse is ready when you are.


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