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Open Data Should be for Everyone

Learn QGISLearn QGIS is an open mapping initiative

 Learn QGIS : The information age is powered by data

In Canada, data drives policy decisions, business decisions and community decisions. From national conversations about social issues to local campaigns for more park benches, our decisions are guided by geographic data – and when more people have access to authoritative data, the more informed these important conversations can be.

With the government’s recent commitment to an Open Data Action Plan, there is no doubt that Canadian data publishers will continue to make high priority datasets available online. These data are touted as being accessible to all, and that’s true – but their actual use is limited to those with the technical skills to know what to do with them.

LearnQGIS.com is a new Canadian initiative to change the way open data is used. I’m asking you to check out the website, sign up to get involved, and please – this is important – visit https://www.raiseanaim.org/projects/learn-qgis to endorse the project or support it financially.

In our experience, open data publishers have done a reasonably good job of connecting with local app developers (or ‘civic hackers’), who use the data to write web applications, often in the context of weekend hackathons. These applications generally fail to gain traction – they are quickly written and quickly forgotten. There is a growing (and as of yet un-met) demand from professionals outside of the hackathon groups in a variety of industries to support their use of the data as well.

 “The world is witnessing the growth of a global movement facilitated by technology and social media and fuelled by information – one that contains enormous potential to create more accountable, efficient, responsive and effective governments and businesses, and to spur economic growth. Open data sits at the heart of this global movement.” – G8 Open Data Charter

Learn QGISMany open datasets are in geospatial formats or have a spatial component (a postal code, for example). Therefore, the transmission of GIS knowledge to those outside our industry is critical to the accessibility of open data. Journalists, non-profits, small businesses, citizen groups, researchers, and anyone else working on a professional or pet project ought to be able to download a shapefile and make a basic map. They should be able to combine data from different sources, including their own proprietary information.

“We’ve been seeing over the last couple of years a new layer of interest in Open Data and that interest is coming from people who can’t use or even understand raw data files. There is a clear need to provide ways and means for everyone to leverage raw data.” – Keith McDonald, City of Toronto Open Data Lead

Luckily, we live in the age of free and open source GIS, such as the popular QGIS platform. With a short primer on some geographic fundamentals, even non-technical users can successfully create their very own custom map. The experience, however, can be frustrating and there are many roadblocks to success. The learning curve can be steep, and the existing training options don’t adequately meet the needs of users with non-technical backgrounds. Right now we’re telling people to take a course and hope it answers their questions, or post to a forum and hope for an answer they can use. I suspect we, as a geomatics community, could help generate better outcomes – including increased name recognition for our industry – by building better relationships with geo-rookies.

These “rookies” are people who are actively working on projects that would benefit from a GIS. They’re experts in their own fields, not people looking to enter the geomatics industry themselves. What they really need is an expert guide to hold their hand while they work on a DIY GIS project, offering a little general advice about getting started, answering a couple of specific questions about the project, and helping to bail them out if they run into trouble. I like to equate it to working out with a personal trainer – sure, you could probably figure out what exercises you should be doing and how to do them properly yourself, but you’re much more likely to succeed with someone supporting you and holding you accountable.

“Technical skills are becoming increasingly important for media professionals. GIS is a growing field for journalists, and maps are an increasingly popular and important way of presenting information to readers and analyzing data dumps from governments. The program Ms. Blundell outlines would be an important resource, one that does not currently exist, to bring skills training and guidance to media professionals. There is an established and under served market for technical training and this program would go a long way toward fulfilling those needs.” – William Wolfe-Wiley, Homepage Editor, Canada.com

My vision for LearnQGIS.com is to provide this “personal trainer” experience. It’s a way to connect rookies with a geospatial guide who can advise them and help them succeed. Once an expert is on board as a volunteer guide, they are also invited to apply to be a QGIS instructor. LearnQGIS instructors receive everything they need to run a training seminar wherever they’re located in Canada, including marketing and logistical support, presentation materials, and tutorials with pre-packaged data. Revenue from the workshops is divided between the instructor, the site, and the QGIS Project.

Aside from the opportunity to become an instructor, there are many benefits to volunteering as a guide. In my practice as a GIS consultant, I’ve noticed that training my clients in open source tools has also benefitted me. They’re more willing to expand their use of the technology once they understand it. When they have the power to make simple edits they are more willing to have me do some work in the short term, knowing they won’t need to call for support if they decide to use a different shade of green for a feature. And once they understand what goes into a mapping project, they’re often more willing to pay a real expert to do the more complicated work they can’t do themselves. I’ve been playing the role of ‘guide’ for years, and it’s been a win-win. I’ve also learned that teaching others one-on-one or in a classroom is a wonderful way to expand your knowledge, and helping someone with a project can help you gain experience in a new industry.

This project already has buy-in from data publishers and leaders in the geospatial community. Potential users are enthusiastic to get started. I encourage you to get involved at www.learnqgis.com. Sign up to be a guide; apply to become an instructor. Share the link broadly – we all know someone who really should be using GIS in their work. We know our industry is important; let’s show our friends outside the sector what we can do for them.

“Access to data allows individuals and organizations to develop new insights and innovations that can improve the lives of others and help to improve the flow of information within and between countries…. We are at a tipping point, heralding a new era in which people can use open data to generate insights, ideas and services to create a better world for all.” – G8 Open Data Charter