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Where does the map data used in Web basemaps come from?

The remarkable success of Web map sites, has led some senior government managers to question the need for their government mapping organization to continue or to expand their base mapping capabilities as they believe that others are now doing the mapping. So where does the map data used in Web basemaps really come from?

One of the most successful yet disruptive innovations in SDI development has been the Web basemap or the Web map app. This is a single source of map information which allows users to view an entire country (or the entire world) and then continually zoom down to view a building or walkway on a university campus - all in a single application. Users can search for various locations or pan to their point of interest. All this being displayed and controlled on an internet connected desktop computer or on a connected mobile device. Web maps are easy to use, fast, useful and seemingly an amazing technology.

The sky is the limit in terms of the uses of Web maps. Some current Web basemap offerings appeal to the general public because they allow users to find the closest pizza restaurant or nearest three star hotels. The Esri Canada Community Map of Canada is a Web basemap that has all the basic capabilities and features, but it also includes some analytical capabilities and is easily integrated into desktop GIS workflows.

Three key drivers which have led to the widespread success of Web maps are performance, simplicity and ease of use. More and more individuals are using Web maps because they are convenient and useful. However, while a powerful yet simple Graphical User Interface (GUI) is important, the real power of a Web basemap comes from the content. Good map content leads to good Web basemaps. Certain types of users may want to see certain types of data on their Webmap, so different applications using Webmaps are starting to become more readily available.

So where does this map data come from? Probably due to the simplicity of use, many non-GIS-professional Web map users think that this map data just appears or that some large company is creating and displaying the data. This is an urban legend that just seems to keep coming back. I’ve even heard a provincial government mapping program manager say that their director doesn’t understand why they need to continue their mapping program to produce map data as some company is now creating this data since the director has seen it on their Webmap.

The fact is that much of the Web map data that comes into use today continues to come from various government mapping agencies. The data is acquired, processed and is made available for the Web map via a signed agreement or via some government open data policy. Sure, sometimes the road and address information comes from a private sector source, but in general the other Web map information is created from government supplied data.

Generally governments create this data in the first place in order to support their internal programs, such as natural resources, agriculture, defense, elections or census. So if the government stops producing and releasing this data where is it going to come from? Well that is why it’s essential that local, regional and national government mapping programs continue, not just in support of their internal government services, but by releasing this data, others can benefit as well. Thus these government mapping agencies need to continue data production and update data regularly so that there is always a fresh supply of current data. Without the government performing this task it will not get done and Canada’s Web map data will become out of date.

Figure 1 - Communities participating in Community Map of Canada Program.

Does this mean that government mapping agencies should continue doing their business the same way they have in the past? Not really – all agencies (mapping or not) should always be looking at how their work can be made more effective and efficient.

So where does Web basemap data come from? Well a lot of it comes from hard working government mapping organizations that not only create and assemble data for their own use, but that also make this authoritative data available for additional purposes.

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About the Author

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

Profile Photo of Gordon Plunkett