Building a Peaceful Geodata Marketplace

Is Free Data Always a Good Idea?
ESRI seems to promote the idea that software should cost money, but data should be free. At the same time OSGeo folks seem to think both software and data should be free. Is anyone asking whether free data is always a good idea ?

If you’re like a lot of GIS professionals, a big part of your job is adding value to geodata. Free data seems like a good thing at first, but without incentive for data to be collected, opportunities to add value are limited.

hyperspectral cube
Hyperspectral Cube Image stolen from Duke University Math Dept.

Case in Point: Hyperspectral Imagery
In its raw form, hyperspectral imagery (HSI) is a pain to deal with. The files are huge, and difficult to visualize. To be at all useful, it must first be processed. Processing HSI is not trivial – graduate training is needed plus specialized software. So let’s suppose you take out a few college loans, get an advanced degree in remote sensing, and learn to glean information from HSI that can save the planet.

With HSI supporting so many different types of environmental analyses, you would think the world needs more HSI experts. But once you start looking for a job and get only get 4 hits when searching for hyperspectral, all of which are military projects, you may begin to think otherwise. There’s a disconnect somewhere. I think the problem is the market, or rather the lack thereof.

USGS sells data collected by the Hyperion satellite. After using the rather lame EarthExplorer, you must purchase an image in its entirety ($250 each). I’m not sure how big the files are, but rest assured, they are big … purchase is delivered on DVD, not available via download. Just because you can buy something at there website doesn’t mean its a marketplace though. A market is a place where you can sell stuff, like eBay.

Take a look at WeoGeo where buyers are able to discover and purchase an HSI with just the bands they need for an area of interest. Perhaps as importantly though, users can also participate as sellers. So after processing the imagery, a user can then log in as a seller and list a derived product for sale, choosing how royalties are to be paid back to the vendor of the parent (raw) data.

I’ve used hyperspectral imagery as an example, but I think the same forces apply to any dataset requiring expertise to process. Sensors are becoming more sophisticated and UAVs more affordable. Technology alone does not an industry make. We need to be building marketplaces for the new types of data these new platforms will be collecting.

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5 comments so far

  1. Dave Witzel on

    I think the point isn’t so much free vs. fee as “how much for what? Publicly produced data should be made available at its economically efficient price which is roughly the marginal cost of delivery. We need to figure out how to fund the creation of public data sets (maybe expensive), promote their distribution (probably not too expensive), and then use the data well (pretty darn expensive). the same could be said for software with social objectives…

  2. Kirk on

    Hi Dave –

    Thanks for the comments. I’d really like to see the more than just government data produced. I’m not sure how USGS decided to price their data but, I suspect its based on cost of delivery model, even though they do specify an addtional $5 “delivery charge”.

    Data is being collected by the private sector now to feed Google/VirtualEarth. They intend to make money, but are eating the cost now with intention of recouping later. Maybe in the long run, besides being dead, we will get to use HSI derived imagery with advertisements embedded in them (Myanmar Shave?).

    If there were a market for geodata, I might be tempted to buy a UAV, slap a sensor on it and start collecting. With others doing the same, maybe my Homeowners Association could even afford to start monitoring oak decline.

    On the one hand there is role for free data (both Gov’t and Google sponsored), but on the other hand we need to consider the role a market could play. Plus we need to think about how the two approaches co-exist. Makes me wonder … what is the sound of the invisible hand of the marketplace clapping?

  3. Paul Bissett on

    Hi Kirk,

    One of the biggest problems with the existing geo-content market is the current licensing mechanisms. There are all types, and few allow for derivative products to be produced in a way that compensates both the original content provider and derivative content provider.

    Our hope is that one person’s finished product becomes another’s raw product (and there is no reason to assume that this content stack stops at two layers). In this way, more value-added content is available for all, and this content may transition from one market vertical to another.

    I think it would be good for the field if we were to see a viable market for our content outside of the direct customers. Value-added processing would be easier as the basic supply of content increased; in addition, more total revenues would be generated for skilled content providers.

    I hope the ghost of Adam Smith is smiling.

  4. […] Building a Peaceful Geodata Marketplace « The Memory Leak Is anyone asking whether free data is always a good idea ? If you’re like a lot of GIS professionals, a big part of your job is adding value to geodata. Free data seems like a good thing at first, but without incentive for data to be collected, opportun (tags: weobuzz) […]

  5. […] is Finalist in Amazon Startup Challenge WeoGeo, discussed in an earlier blog, has been named as a finalist in Amazon’s Startup […]

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