Ever since the news broke that ESRI recieved a Whitehouse contract to:
merge a federal website that publishes geospatial information with Data.gov, the government’s depot for downloadable data sets, the company’s president said on Thursday.
California-based ESRI began last summer tying Data.gov to Geodata.gov, the geospatial information gateway, said company President Jack Dangermond in an interview with Nextgov….
Anyone will be able to create mashups on the free website ArcGIS.com, which ESRI launched on Saturday.
the community has been pretty upset. I’ve seen the same angry sentiment repeated over Twitter, IRC, Skype and beers.
This made me begin to wonder why were folks – myself included getting so riled up over this. ArcGIS.com looks like a great site that makes geospatial data more accessible to the public. Data.gov is making more government data available – marriage made in heaven.
So, what is the problem? At the core the deal and the platform violate the two guiding principles of Gov 2.0. – transparency and open data. When the Obama administration announced their “Transparency and Open Government” initiative there was a hugely positive response from the community.
The deal outlined by the NextGov article violates the first premise – transparency. The ESRI deal was a sole sourced contract that was not competed, but instead an extension to a six year old contract for GeoData.gov from 2004. What was the the process for selecting ESRI for this critical service? What were the requirements? What are the benefits of their solution? Are open standards being supported? No clue on any of it because there has been zero transparency on the contract.
No only was the process not transparent ESRI gets access to government data for ArcGIS.com that is not being made available to anyone else. Worse yet ESRI had access and was working on integration for a year according to the article. No other citizen, project, NGO or company had access to the data to integrate into other existing projects. Keep in mind the current incarnation of Geodata.gov is a data catalog of metadata not a data repository. So, there is no easy way for anyone to systematically pull all the geodata cataloged in Geodata.gov.
A second critical aspect of open government is open data. Open data means the raw data available in open standard formats. So, ESRI got a sole sourced contract and a head start integrating the data into their new Web portal. Some might find it a bit sketchy, but big deal we can get over it. At least the data will be available to the public to repurpose and innovate on top of…right?
Sadly this does not seem to be the case at all. To quote the articles:
He (Dangermond) said he expects Geodata.gov’s map services, which enable Web-based applications from different sources to communicate with each other, to be available on Data.gov within two months.
This is an important nuance. Data won’t be available – “map services” will be available. So what is a “map service” you might ask? A “map service” is a proprietary data stream from an ArcGIS server. A service that can only be produced by ESRI technology. You can overlay the “mapping service” on say a Google or Bing basemap, but there is no way to repurpose the data or open it unless you have ESRI technology. Building anything with the data requires reliance on ESRI technology. So, where will citizens be able to consume this data – ArcGIS.com of course. What does ArcGIS.com support? Let’s look at the screenshots:
ArcGIS.com supports ArcGIS server “mapping services”, ESRI mapping applications, and ESRI mobile applications. All proprietary and none of which can be utilized by anything other than an ESRI product. The “mapping services” coming out of the Geodata.gov work – all the same. No standards and no support for anything other than ESRI licensed software – yeah we asked.
Ah, but you say you can load files, and maybe even download files. At least there would be support for shapefiles, and other apps can read those….nope:
If the data could be open by another technology obviously that is bad. In short this is what has the community quite upset about the whole affair. A non-competitive bid with zero transparency to put government data in proprietary formats that are not accessible to the community, unless you want to buy ESRI technology or look at their proprietary site.
The good news? This is all easy to fix. Make the data available in open formats. Make it available in a raw format for download. Federate the content through open standards so other projects can tap into the data feeds (not map services). Make contracts open opportunities that are competitively bid with clear requirements.
ESRI has lots of great technology but citizens should not be forced to use it in order to access public government data. This is the fundamental principle behind open data and transparent government. ESRI is an important part of the ecosystem, but it is not a monoculture. If the government wants innovation to thrive and sustained economic growth they need to truly open data and create a level playing field.
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