Separation Anxiety - 09/04/2013

Untangling data from software may increasingly be necessary as legislators demand free or open data from publicly funded projects. But currently, many do not understand what remote sensing technologies are capable of. It all boils down to education argues Adena Schutzberg.

Here in the United States, lawmakers and the public are abuzz about drones. Those same groups are also abuzz about a recent court case suggesting that county GIS data is not as open as many would like. The similarity? Many of the sparks are flying because of challenges related to separating a single entity into two parts. Let me explain.

From broad to distinct

Legislators at all levels of government are pondering how to, or even if they will allow, the use of drones within their jurisdictions. Those in the field may know these remotely controlled flying platforms as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aerial systems (UASs). In the US, federal plans are still maturing and, in the meantime, cities and states are developing legislation to increase citizen comfort. In the state of New Hampshire for instance, early drafts of legislation prohibited “images of a person’s residence to be taken from the air”, which would potentially impact traditional aerial and satellite data collection! That broad statement has since been updated, but it suggests legislators and the public need to learn to separate broad categories into valuable, distinct, smaller ones.

What needs to be separated?

Casual users click on the “satellite imagery” button in Google Maps and believe all the imagery comes from satellites. We know better; we know that some of the sensors used to capture the imagery were carried on planes and other platforms. In short, legislators and the public need to know more about existing and emerging aerial platforms (from kites to drones to satellites) and existing emerging sensors (from visual imagery, to infrared to sound, to radar and LiDAR).

Separate understandings

The court case I mentioned was decided in March by the Ohio Supreme Court. It relates to the state’s Open Records Act, which, like many similar state laws, states that records created using tax dollars should be available at no or minimal charge to the public. It seems some aerial photographs and details of properties were not available from a county engineer. When pushed to deliver the entire dataset of both layers by a constituent, the engineer was happy to deliver the data, but with a $2000 fee. Why? The data could not be easily separated from the copyrighted software. The fee covered the cost of separation. The state Supreme Court decided the fee was acceptable, prompting many questions about software and data: Are data and software separate? Do GIS professionals, lawyers and judges understand the difference, or do they have separate understandings?

The need to know

The best advice I can offer on these two matters boils down to education. Users of remotely sensed data need to know from whence it comes. They need to know that many flying vehicles capture data remotely and do so with a variety of sensors for a variety of reasons. Those dealing with open records laws need to understand the relationship between data and software and when, why and how they are “intertwined” with software programs. In the meantime, we in the geospatial industry will all suffer a bit of separation anxiety.

This article was first published in GiS Professional April 2013.

Last updated: 22/03/2017