What to Do with Open Spatial Data? Four Examples

Added by Maarja Toots 2019/03/26

A lot of the information we need in our daily lives has something to do with space or location. What’s the weather in Northern Estonia today? When will the next tram leave my station? What route should I take for work on a snowy day?

Spatial data can refer to a variety of information, from the location of roads, cities and forests on a map up to the exact geographic coordinates of a specific object, such as the nearest shop or café. Since spatial data is vitally important for us, it is deemed one of the most valuable kinds of data with a huge reuse potential (see, for example, G8 Open Data Charter, or European Commission 2014). Investments in spatial data are considered profitable to the extent that the UK hopes to unlock up to £11 billion worth of economic value annually by increasing the use of geospatial data.

In Estonia, public access to spatial data is constantly improving and location-based data has already been put to good use. Let’s look at four real-life examples (though it must be said the last one has so far only remained an idea – we’ll explain why).

Example 1: When will my bus arrive?

The City of Tallinn’s public transportation map shows data on the location of all public transport stops and vehicles in real time. As a citizen, this allows me to receive real-time information on when the bus will reach my stop or where a trolleybus seems to have come off the wires. The data are updated every five seconds and a click on a bus on the interactive map shows me the schedule of this bus line on the website of the Tallinn Transport Department (that’s also one of the map’s data sources). Users can choose to display the map either on HERE maps or Google’s base map.

Source: screenshot from https://gis.ee/tallinn

Example 2: What did my street look like in the olden days?

The visual culture project Timepatch (Ajapaik) driven by private initiative and enthusiasm, combines data from public sector databases (e.g. the Information System of Museums) as well as citizen-sourced photos and geo-data on a single map with the aim to capture the appearance of different buildings and locations throughout years and decades. If you live in an historic building, you can look up your house on the Timepatch map and see what it looked like 70 years ago. You can also take a quick photo of your street today, upload it and compare it to historical shots of the same place. Timepatch also includes a good number of photos about historical events, geo-tagged with the help of users. Want to see what an election poster on the window of a mall in Põlva looked like in 1989? Go and see!

Example 3: Help, a snow plow!

The Estonian Road Administration has been exchanging data with the popular drivers’ assistant Waze for more than four years. Thanks to the Road Administration’s data, Waze users know where streets are blocked or which roads are likely to be slippery on a winter morning. Since last winter, Waze users can also see Road Administration’s data about the location of slow-moving snow plows within a kilometer in real time. This allows the driver to pick another route and reduces the need for dangerous overtaking. All this is possible thanks to their cooperation with the company Ecofleet, whose GPS tracking solution enables to monitor the movement of snow plows and spreaders. Data also moves the other way from Waze to the Road Administration. As one of the most recent developments, the warnings on bad road and weather conditions that users submit to Waze can now also be seen on the Road Administration’s map application Tark tee.

Example 4: How are we using Estonia?

Last summer, Bloomberg published an article enriched with captivating visuals about land use in the United States:

Source: Bloomberg.

Annegrete wanted to compile a similar overview of land use in Estonia. In order to do this, she needed to take a map of Estonia, divide it into squares and paint it based on the use of each piece of land. As the first step, Annegrete had a look at the Land Board’s land cadaster data, which contains information about the land use category of each cadaster. She found out that as much as 88 percent of Estonia is the so-called ‘profit-yielding land’ (land that can be used for agricultural production or forestry). Based on these data, she could draw a graph like this:

Source: Estonian Land Board

This graph does give us information but is not particularly interesting even if you put it on a map. What we needed is more detailed information on which part of this land is forests, which part is agricultural land, what is being grown there and how it is distributed all over Estonia. For this, we also needed data from Statistics Estonia. We learned that about two thirds of the profit-yielding land is actually forests and one third is crop and grassland. Now we could enhance the graph with more detailed information.

However, we still lacked information on what color to paint each square on the map of Estonia. We therefore need more detailed information on land use at the level of a single cadaster. Now the bad news – even when we combine the existing open data from the Land Board and Statistics Estonia we are not able to visualize land use the way Bloomberg did because data at this level of detail is simply not there. So, instead of a colorful map, we ended up with this lonely sad bar on a graph.

What can we conclude based on these examples?

  • Spatial data can be useful for many people – those waiting for a bus, those interested in photography or simply citizens curious about the world around them.
  • Spatial data tends to be the most useful when you put it on a map.
  • In order to make useful maps, we need data at sufficient level of detail. Although public access to open spatial data has greatly improved in Estonia, not all good ideas can yet be put into practice due to lack of data.
  • The really valuable solutions are those that are co-created by various stakeholders, for instance when data from different sources are published on the same map and when public organizations, companies and citizens amicably share data and platforms.

The Open Data Portal's content is created as part of the EU structural funds' programme 'Raising Public Awareness about the Information Society' financed through the EU Regional Development Fund. The project is implemented by Open Knowledge Estonia.

European Union Regional Developmen Fund

The Open Data Portal's content is created as part of the EU structural funds' programme "Raising Public Awareness about the Information Society" financed through the EU Regional Development Fund.