What’s Your GIS Data-Sharing Policy?

By | August 30, 2019

This is for my public sector GIS tribe members!

Steal this graphic, share it, and put it in your signature block!

Most of my subscribers have a government email address, and this blog post is just for you. I’m making the additional assumption that you are looking for ways to share your beautiful GIS data with the public. You want to share your data because you believe in the power of GIS as a critical and basic infrastructure element of your community. Plus, you know that open GIS data is economic development fuel for your community. (Posts on why this is a good policy will follow.)

First, I want you to know that I have been where you are: working hard and trying to make a difference with your GIS skills for the citizens you serve. The vast majority of GIS tribe members just want to do our GIS thing to the best of our ability and kind of be left alone. We desperately try to avoid the silly political infighting, and we often don’t understand why “they” want to mess with something that works so well, in all its geospatial glory.

But the very nature of our funding support and community-wide impact keeps us swimming hard to avoid the mercurial political whims and schemers who play politics. Hell, most of us can’t even think like they do. Thankfully.

So, where am I going with this?

This is the first post, among many to come, whose sole purpose is to sit on the internet until you need to review or develop your local government’s GIS data-sharing policy. Come back and grab the information you need when you need it. I’m going to put “fun-sized” vignettes on the web that you can use later to nudge your local GIS data-sharing policy towards transparency. (A key theme here at GeoDicta.) Think of these posts as a big bag of Halloween mini Snickers bars chock full of geospatial data-sharing policy ideas. Throw as many of them as needed at your city and county managers and other politicians.

My mission: Spreading the good word of GIS data-sharing transparency! Can I get an Amen!

Spreading the gospel of open data in 2017.
2017 Arkansas GIS Conference Keynote
2017 Arkansas GIS Conference Keynote
Legal Issues in GIS, my first class in 2015.

As a GIS community, I believe that we are better off if we proactively work to lower the barriers between our GIS data and the public. To do that, I’ve given multiple presentations to multiple groups, and honestly, I haven’t made a dent in the problem. PowerPoint presentations, no matter how spellbindingly spectacular, like many of my own, fade from memory. But Google is forever. Thus, it occurred to me that I ought to post this stuff on the web in a logical and searchable format. Thus, GeoDicta was conceived.

Good data sharing = stronger economic development

In case you’re reading this article on a cell phone or otherwise have trouble viewing images, I’m going to repeat the points that are shown in the infographic at the beginning of this post. These are the main points that are worth raising to your city and county managers and other politicians:

  • Your community’s GIS data policy is your community’s economic development policy.
  • Almost exclusively, the only people who need your GIS data are people looking to do business with or within your community.
  • Or the people who want your data produce a tool that helps third parties engage with your community.
  • Investment seeks transparency and sophisticated local governments.
  • If the cost of evaluating your infrastructure is too high, development will go elsewhere.


GIS people don’t often control their government organization’s GIS data-sharing policy. That’s our main problem. We need to start leading these conversations. On the upside, at least we are normally involved in the policy planning meetings.

A point to share with others is this: If your GIS data is proactively pushed out in a way where independent groups can use it, analyze it, and help you correct it, then your data users will help you spot issues before they rise to the level of impaneling a grand jury and handing down indictments. Use the wisdom of the crowd. The more you work with your citizenry, the fewer problems you and your data are likely to encounter.

Anecdotes to share as you need them

I’ve recently noticed an uptick in local governments adding mapping considerations in their requirements, including their regulations, resolutions, and ordinance references related to geospatial conditions or locations. But these legal references could use a little pondering.

When you, as an earnest GIS tribe member, are trying to articulate why data sharing is so very important, it might help to have a couple of stories at hand to illustrate your points. Here are two that I’ve recently encountered:

Mapping the devil’s lettuce

One of the great GeoVelo business surprises of 2019 was when I started receiving calls from multiple medical marijuana retail and manufacturing concerns and their attorneys. The state of Missouri’s recent medical marijuana statutes require applicants to maintain certain distances from several types of land uses.

The Missouri legislature decided that churches, schools, and daycares require a minimum setback distance. However, the statutes allow local governments to lower, but not increase, the standoff distance. GIS people immediately understand that if good data layers exist for the selected land uses, a GIS can easily generate maps showing potential areas where these facilities might be located. Of course, some ground-truthing should be performed before signing a real estate purchase contract.

This might be a little too subtle of a point for state and local government to notice, but imagine how efficient the process would be if the state statute referenced geospatial data sets held by the Missouri Spatial Data Information Service (MSDIS) instead of what’s on the ground. However, the problem with my approach is that it requires some state agency to keep and maintain the data sets. Data sets exist for schools and daycares but do not exist for churches to the best of my knowledge.

And let’s not even get started with answering the question of what is a church. Does a distressed downtown with a few storefront churches renting space month to month count? Or is a church something that owns the ground it sits on? Could a Christian bookstore be considered a church if the owners hold weekly fellowships there? It can get sticky quickly.

By referencing in the statute the geospatial data sets instead of transitory items on the ground, it would significantly lower site selection costs and make it easier for applicants. It would also encourage those landowners who want some separation from the medical marijuana land use to pressure the state to keep the data sets up to date.

Note: GeoVelo has no clients from the medical marijuana industry.

County CAFO distance buffer maps

Another new development is that some counties in Missouri are trying to restrict confined or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) by prohibiting them from locating on or near areas containing karst topography, as shown by the Missouri Geological Survey‘s karst topography maps. OK, but which maps? I’ve done a little online searching, and this morning, I had the honor of briefly talking with Joe Gillman, State Geologist and Missouri Geological Survey Director.

He stated that he was aware that these CAFO resolutions referencing karst topography are popping up. He also confirmed that there is no one “official” karst topography map, as referenced in these new resolutions. While the Missouri Geological Survey has produced some linear and point karst topography geospatial data sets, which are housed at MSDIS, there is no one map meeting the plain-text understanding of the wording as used in these resolutions.

Dear county attorney’s: That’s just a sloppy legal document drafting practice. Imprecision in a material regulatory requirement generates unnecessary uncertainty and increases costs on the part of good-faith applicants. While that may have been the intent of your county commission, it’s a disreputable practice. Your real clients are the citizens of your county as expressed through a majority of the county commission. And no plurality of commissioners should be able to override your obligation to the citizens to play fair. As members of the bar, governmental attorneys have a duty to the public to craft regulations that are clear and as easy to understand as possible. If you are writing with the intent to make them almost impossible to comply with, I suggest it is time to do some soul searching.

Thus, I encourage county attorneys with commissions considering a CAFO regulation to reference a specific existing geospatial data set, instead of an imaginary map. Then craft the language of your resolution in a way that points towards an existing geospatial data set and the inevitable updates that will be added to that data set.

Also, curiously one resolution states that a CAFO permit can only be approved after the Missouri Geological Survey approves the location. Survey Director Gillman expressed some concern that there was no legal basis for the process described by the county resolution. So, this is another resolution drafting note: you might want to make sure the state agency you mandate to grant approval for a local permit actually has the authority and a mechanism for the procedures you require.

Link of the Week

Using GIS: When a Map is Worth a Thousand Words, by David Herzog – October 02, 2008

The business card on the book in this photo is meant to illustrate that I actually purchase the books I reference here on GeoDicta.

David Herzog, Mapping the World (2003). David Herzog is a journalism professor at the University of Missouri – Columbia. His 2003 book Mapping the News (ISBN-10: 9781589480728 & ISBN-13: 978-1589480728) stands, despite the passage of time, as an excellent guide to how GIS can be deployed by the media and citizens to monitor the actions of their government—at all administrative levels.

About the Author

You can view Chris Dunn’s third person singular CV here. Basically, he’s a geographer with a law degree, a bar card, and a kick-ass GIS workstation. Email me at Chris.Dunn@GeoVelo.com

Updated: 20199822_1716