Earlier this month, I attended TUgis, Maryland’s annual GIS conference. It was my first time attending since I gave the keynote address in 2017. That was due primarily to the conference being moved to early August – a reasonable adjustment due to the fact that the venue is always Towson University and the new timeframe takes advantage of the fact that students are still away on break. That timeframe also happens to usually coincide with my family’s annual vacation. The other reason for my long absence was the pandemic.
This year, the conference occurred right before our vacation, so I was able to squeeze it in – though I had to leave halfway through the second day to finish travel preparations. For me, the conference was a chance to catch up with a number of people I hadn’t seen in quite a while – all of whom I mentioned over on LinkedIn. I especially enjoyed catching up with a couple of my former Fulcrum co-workers whom I had worked with for my entire tenure there. Those were exceptionally meaningful years for me and I feel like we grew a lot together.
As for the conference itself, I attended the public safety special interest group and a few other sessions. As a recovering programmer, it’s always interesting to see the software solutions people develop – either from scratch or customizing some other software. At TUgis, that other software tends to be some form of Esri application, though there were a few mentions of open-source tools as well.
Of particular interest to me was a second-day session discussing how the Prince George’s County (PG County) division of the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission was managing imports of their data to OpenStreetMap (OSM). OSM has a fluid schema (purists would call it “schema-less” but that concept is a fiction) and a number of community conventions that must be observed to successfully perform a bulk import. The PG County team has patiently worked through this process to ensure that their data becomes part of OSM. I was most impressed by the pragmatism of their rationale for doing this in the first place.
PG County maintains several high-fidelity authoritative data sets, and they maintain a system for making that data publicly available. Maryland’s Open Data Act requires that, and PG County does an excellent job. The motive for pushing to OSM is simple. More and more apps that people use have OSM as their basemap. These apps are easily available via app stores and the OSM data often comes via other providers such as Mapbox or Esri. Users quickly begin to think of this data as authoritative and question local governments when their data differs from OSM. Rather than hold the ocean back with a broom, PG County simply decided to make sure their data was also in OSM. This is extremely sensible.
I was also impressed by work the Maryland Environment Service had done to use ArcGIS Workforce, Survey123, and ArcGIS QuickCapture to dispatch workers and volunteers to inspect easements around the state. The workflow demonstrated was one we had been working toward early in my tenure at Spatial Networks, so it was impressive to see how smoothly it operated.
My last observation is a high-level one, and not exceptionally unique. All of the machinations I saw with software only served to remind me that, as my friend Mike Byrne says, “data is queen.” Data is the raw material with which software works. It processes data, refines it, transforms it, and makes it more useful and understandable for humans but, in the end, the data is vastly more important than the software itself. Organizations must take care to ensure that they don’t lock their data away in systems or formats that are generally inaccessible – especially if, like Maryland, there is a mandate that data be open. Users and constituents should be able to easily access and use data with commonly available tools – web browsers, text editors, spreadsheets, and such.
This cuts both ways – whether data is locked away in something highly proprietary like a file geodatabase or something that is open-and-esoteric like GeoParquet. Those types of formats have their uses and can enable professionals, but they not ideal as the public-facing solution for general consumption. In the end, data is the asset that matters and software or formats that make data harder to use or access are working against users rather than for them.
Assuming schedules align, I’m looking forward to next year’s TUgis but, between now and then, there will be FOSS4G North America in Baltimore. It’s been a busy geospatial year in the Mid-Atlantic and that’s been exciting.