Maintain Your Product’s Relevance with a Data Management Strategy

By: Robert Fleming

data management

It is that time of year again; the Esri UC is behind us and we GIS folks have all these great ideas to chase down.  Maybe you saw a cool map in the gallery that highlights data in a unique way; or went to a session about an application that your users could really benefit from.  Whatever it is, the fire has been lit and we are ready to run with it.  Great!  That is what these events are all about – sharing ideas, learning about new techniques, and finding solutions.  Now hit the brakes…

All too often, we come out running but we often forget to acknowledge that we just focused on the final product.  That map you came upon was not just a few hours of work to make it look great on some glossy paper.  That application was not just a few developers and designers making a great interface for the public.  It represents weeks, months, or even years of building great data that analysts and developers expose through their products.  Don’t get me wrong, the talents witnessed at these events are amazing; and we need great maps and apps to share our data.  However, if the data is no good, who will want to use our maps and apps?  What value can our products have then?

As you develop your next project, spend some time thinking about the data.  Plan to foster an environment where data management is key to the strategy.  How will it be stored?  How will it be maintained?  How will you ensure its quality?  These are just a few thoughts to get started thinking about data management strategy and how it can make your product relevant.

Data Standards

All projects start here; and while defining a database design is rarely left out, it is important to get this step right in the beginning.  What data model should be used; is the existing model good enough or should a new industry model be implemented?  This answer may vary depending on your organization and project needs.  It is importance to understand the end goal, which will help define the requirements and drive the database design.  Designing your database correctly early on will ensure all relevant data has a place in the model.  There is nothing worse than having to review every record over again because you had to add one more attribute.

Data Maintenance

Many projects use the most current data or collect new data once during the project scope.  This might suffice for the initial deliverable; but the data becomes stale the day it is published.  From that day forward, the value of the product begins to decrease.  How can you keep your product relevant?  Build data maintenance into the existing business processes.  The staff from the group you built the product for often completes these processes.  Be sure to include this group as a key stakeholder in your project.  Get their buy-in and discuss altering their business processes to include a GIS data maintenance step.  If you help them realize the value of your product, this will be a welcome addition to their processes.

Data Quality

Designing a great data model and keeping your database current is great.  These are big steps in making your data relevant.  If it meets their needs, people will want to use your product and rely on it for answers.  What happens when they find errors in the data?  Errors are going to happen; there is no way around it because we all make mistakes.  How you handle the errors will define your data’s relevance and possibly even make it the authoritative source.  Plan for regular quality control checks to ensure it meets a defined standard.  These should include both automated checks for schema discrepancies and hands-on checks to verify content quality.  You may also include a method for users to submit errors they have found.  Implementing data quality will help establish your dataset as a trusted source.

So if your data is incomplete, outdated or full of errors your product will not be relevant no matter how great the idea was.  Remember, when people use your product it is the data and the story you can tell with it that they are truly interested in.  Make data a priority and stay relevant.

Fresh Thoughts on Data Management

By Jonah Adkins, GISP

Over the last few years the high availability of map and geo-data services with the help of mobile technology has sparked the “geo-boom”; any and all data can be tied to location using a variety of technologies, therefore making data management more important than ever.

GIS professionals have long been familiar with data management practices. The landfills are full of floppy disks, CD’s, and DVDs of Coverages, shapefiles, and geodatabases shared between localities, bought from vendors, or supplied by software companies. Growing up in this industry, there was a two-sided badge you got to wear as a GIS professional. The front side was a badge of honor you got for skills in “Data-Hoarding”; “How big is your database?” “Where did you get that dataset?” “You have so much data you had to buy a server!!!!” The other side of that badge said Sheriff in big letters, “Why do you need MY data?”, “It’s going to cost you”, “Can I get that formal request in triplicate?”  This badge was also a curse, because all GIS pro’s had it, so good luck getting some data from a suspicious colleague. Lost hours of phone calls with protective data mothers, answering a litany of questions, and paperwork, all to show the buildings of an adjoining county on the map. Our niche community of GIS technologists has ballooned into a billion dollar a year industry with a bevy of new catchphrases like “big data” and “location analytics”. The need for your two gigabyte geodatabase is dwindling in favor of “point me to your map service”.

To navigate the through the “geo-boom”, GIS professionals must be adaptive to a dizzying array of technologies, making managing your data so important. See the ‘your’ underlined in that sentence? Being an authoritative data source comes with responsibility. Your data is worth the time and effort to ensure it has proper formatting, free of errors, and is the reflection of your business. Can it be considered ‘authoritative’ if it doesn’t have those attributes? To curb the old “data-hoarding” habits, leave data that isn’t yours to the professionals, the ones who own it. By taking the time to research who the authoritative source for a needed data set, you can prevent costly duplication and replication of data. Why spend resources on building tile caches and storage if the authoritative source already has, and if not start a dialogue with them, chances are you are not the only one who needs it. There are countless cost effective options to make authoritative data available. While healthy protectiveness of your data is honorable, that Sheriffs badge you wear is starting to rust. You are sorely behind the curve if your data is not or if you do not currently have plans to make your data available to consumers. Potential partnerships, new consumers, and innovation are just a few of the benefits for making your data “open”. You may never fully understand the importance of your data until you make it available for all to use. Understanding that some datasets are sensitive, data security exists, and yes, some businesses would like to profit from their tireless work of creating data, these points still apply and even more so, for pay to play datasets.

Regardless of the data model, storage method, dbms, or software your data is ultimately a reflection of your business. If you cannot successfully manage your business you are doomed to fail, likewise without proper data management values, the usefulness of you data will fade. One final thought – Our niche community of GIS professionals still exists, we have endured countless changes in technology, and we will survive this “geo-boom” like the rest: as a community of professionals dedicated to putting it on a map. (Paper, digital, or otherwise)