Neogeography as reinvention of the wheel

About 6 months ago, when I was trying to kickstart the Open Guide to Boston project, I mapped out each of the stations on the subway lines in Boston by hand, by looking up the info on the MBTA website, and hand clicking on a satellite map, in an effort to avoid concerns of copyrighted material making it into a CC-licensed dataset.

I later learned several things that frustrated me, such as the fact that there’s no database protection in the United States like there is in the UK, so a collection of the location of T Stops is just a collection of facts, and is not copyrightable — although a particular representation of those may be copyrighted, for example, the display of them on a Google Map in a specific way.

However, this was not the most frustrating event. The most frustrating thing that happened with regard to all the manual labor I put into it is that there was a much easier way: The state government of Massachusetts posts all its data under an open license, allowing for free reuse (with source credit). This includes, amazingly enough, a full listing of all the T Stations, including their name, what line they’re in, and their geographic location.

Yeah. Those 6 hours I spent could have easily been compacted into one without a problem, with more accuracy, and with nicer results. There would have been no copyright concerns, and I could have done it entirely with free software.

So why didn’t I?

I made the same mistake that many neogeographers are making, over and over again: Thinking I was doing something new. The idea that there might be information out there which could make my life easier never crossed my mind. Researching the standard GIS formats, and how to work with them, meant nothing to me: I seriously thought ESRI Shapefiles were a proprietary format that no one would know how to do anything with. Hell, I took at look at them at one point, and couldn’t figure them out because they didn’t return anything useful via `cat`.

A lesson here? Learn the tools of your trade. Every neogeographer should take a lesson in what ‘ogrinfo’ does. Look up information from your local planning board: See if they post files online. See what data is available for you to play with. See if maybe you can save yourself a bit of work by taking what already exists, and not doing the same work by hand. Because there’s a lot of geographic information out there, and recreating it all yourself is not really worth the effort.

GIS is a big field. Neogeography is the cutting edge of it, but right now so much of it is about reinvention of the wheel. There are solved problems that keep getting resolved with every new web mapping API. Learn from others mistakes, and use what they provide to you, and you may end up saving yourself a lot of work. I know I could have.

2 Responses to “Neogeography as reinvention of the wheel”

  1. Kjel Anderson Says:

    I’d be happy to give you a hand with that sort of thing. Working heavily with PostGIS and the like. There is a lot of open source stuff out there, but a lot of it is not pretty. I think qgis/PostGIS will take off once qgis gets to version 1.0. My experience is that processing/finding the data first saves time in the long run for web gis projects.


  2. Andrew Turner Says:

    Good point about not “reinventing the wheel” – however, sometimes being “neo-” and not knowing what’s been done before, and what people think is not possible, allows you to develop new fields and ideas. And even if you come to the same conclusions (“wow, that IS hard”), you learned the process by which you figured that out.

    So, a good mix of seeing what’s been done before, as well as learning stuff on your own. Of course, this has been the cause of the huge increase in pace (2nd deriv?) of programming development, more people are sharing ideas quicker and therefore able to build on each other’s work faster.