Big Data: The View from Above

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

In 1996 the first non-government owned and operated "very high resolution" earth observation satellites were launched into orbit.  By January 2016, 20 active imaging satellites were in orbit -- more than a third of them commercial efforts.The shrinking public sector is a factor here: Previously the U.S. Geological Survey and various other government agencies were the primary sources of earth imagery, using data from satellites like LANDSAT. The data was available gratis or for a nominal fee. Today, corporate providers like Digital Globe are rapidly growing in size and influence.  Esri, a privately held software firm, has become the dominant provider of cloud-based GIS platforms worldwide. 

This is where the open access world and the market intersect. In the world of geospatial data – as well as financial, census and public opinion data – librarians and scholars face a very different set of challenges than those encountered in obtaining access to conventional scholarly materials like e-journals and e-books.  In conversations with experts in the field we’ve been learning that researchers are buying data directly from commercial suppliers, and are often unaware of the availability of open access resources. 

While some cities in the U.S. and Canada make geospatial data freely accessible, the tools and platforms required to use and exploit that data are often proprietary. We have all used free viewers, like Google Earth and Quantum GIS, but many of the applications robust enough for scholarly purposes, like Esri's ArcGIS, must be licensed. Often the licenses come with non-standard terms, and permitted uses are overly customizied to suit an excessively narrow range of purposes, or limiting the number of simultaneous users or reuse by others even at the same institutions. 

On the bright side John Faundeen, of the U.S. Geological Survey, tells us that some large commercial providers are now retiring massive archives of satellite imagery to the public domain. But all in all the challenges of accessing large databases provide a field ripe for collective action by libraries.

CRL’s virtual forum Licensing Big Data on November 16 will examine some of the challenges libraries face in meeting campus research needs in this area.  The forum will feature a set of conversations with individuals immersed in the work of ensuring access to Big Data resources for scholars and students at U.S. and Canadian universities. The conversations will explore possibilities for improving the situation, whether by promulgating model licensing terms, gathering intelligence about market practices and products, or undertaking collective dealings with vendors. 

Bernard F. Reilly
President (2001-2019)
Center for Research Libraries