Share your GIS
George Demmy is Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and one of the founding members of TerraGo Technologies. In the role of CTO, he has responsibilities for oversight of various product and technical initiatives at TerraGo. During his tenure at TerraGo, Demmy has held roles in product development, … More »
Data versus documents
September 14th, 2015 by George Demmy
An overused, over-abused word we have today is “data”. Often people say they “just want to see the data”, but that is almost never what they mean. What they really mean, is “show me the data in a picture arranged just so that I don’t have to read anything to understand it”. That may sound cynical, and I don’t mean it cynically, but that is my experience. Every now and again you’ll get a scientist or someone with a truly scientific bent who really does want to see the data, but they’re not common, and certainly not as might be implied by all of the Church of Data blog posts and manifestos might have you believe. Now, with GIS and geo-writ-large, the connection to data is explicit and apparent, and some are prone to obsess over data, its forms and formats, interfaces for access and frobbing, to the point of distraction. For some, data is the end, it’s their product. But if it really is data, then that’s only a point, or narrow band, on a wide spectrum spanning from data to information to knowledge to wherever that knowledge might take you: insight, action, wisdom, understanding. That’s the point. While the generation of data might put bread on some analyst’s table, it only does so because that data is part of a larger whole. Yes, carefully designed and developed, high-quality, accurate data sets are valuable, but only for what you can do with them. To that end, it’s very important to make it accessible – the lower the barriers to access data enhance the possibilities for its use. If things are locked up in proprietary systems and locked away behind proprietary interfaces, it’s harder to make use of the data and necessarily limiting its utility and value.
As you move up the spectrum, something interesting happens. The point is not to share data (although that certainly might be part of the process), but to communicate information and knowledge. Knowledge necessarily requires the synthesis and distillation of data into something more general and abstract, and much more powerful. Knowledge and how it’s presented to whom are not portable or skinnable the way that views on data can be. It can be as much of a design process as a scientific exercise, requiring consideration of audience and motivation for presenting the information in the first place. Think about the difference between a sensor, say a recording thermometer, and Edward Tufte. That’s the difference between the generation of data and the generation of contextualized presentations of information for a specific purpose. In general, I’m far more interested in the latter. It’s from the presentation of information perspective that I tend view the world that TerraGo serves.
One of the questions that we hear fairly regularly, is how is your PDF better than someone else’s PDF. Well, it depends, I suppose. Maybe it’s not better for your purpose. If they made it right it conforms to ISO 32000 just like ours do. Maybe theirs is smaller because they haven’t preserved layers for view at different zoom levels, or they just rasterized it all for quick visualization on a handheld, and doesn’t have any layers at all. That PDF actually may be better for that purpose than a full bells-and-whistles GeoPDF document made in Publisher. Naturally, we give you controls in Publisher to configure your GeoPDF to your diverse purposes, which is the whole point. If you don’t care what the users will do with the PDF or what you want to have done with it, it’s hard to argue that one’s better than the other. However, if you want to create location-enabled documents that present GIS-derived information in interactive, intuitive ways familiar to anyone who is familiar with PDF, then we have a matchless system. The interactive features that you get with Reader or any PDF consuming device are considerable on their own (hyperlinks, bookmarks, layering and it’s design and control, etc.), but it’s the dynamic interaction with coordinates, measurements, GeoPackage feature attributes with a client application that free for end users to download and install which makes the experience so rich. The question should not be one PDF versus another, which more often than not is an uninteresting and often nonsensical question, but rather how do you effectively communicate location-based information to as wide an audience as possible? Documents have not outlived their usefulness, and as long as they haven’t GeoPDF will have a role to play helping people understand location-based information more quickly, thoroughly, and effectively.