Finding Nemo….errrrrr Data.

Jul 29, 2014 | GIS, Rambling

This all started off with a small project I am doing for a non profit. The project will possibly get a bit larger as time goes on but we are still in the beginning stages of it. My client has no knowledge of GIS. They’ve been haphazardly locating hospitals with which to work and placing them on a map. Which to us seems crazy, but to them it gets the job done. I’ve been trying to put together an estimate for work and there are way too many unknowns. One estimate had me way to high….one had me way too low.

So yesterday I started digging. I won’t name states – but I will give you an overview of the process. I start this with “They’ve been hand digitizing hospitals”.

  • My first thought was the National Map…except something like Hospital locations are way outside the scope of that project.
  • My next guess was census which seems to have some hospital locations but they are polygons. I would like better than centroid and I would like something more “authoritative” coming from the states.

I decided to visit each states “GIS” setup…department….portal….website…..library. This takes place over 5 hours….I think…maybe more.

  • With two of the states I was able to google “Statename Hospital shapefile” and find exactly what I was looking for in less than two clicks.
  • Every major university has a half-assed page devoted to GIS links. Yes I said half-assed. Most of these aren’t curated or maintained.
  • In every search mapcruzin was ranked at the top or close to the top for data searches. I have 0 idea where this data came from – so much so I didn’t care to even investigate it.
  • One state’s search returned metadata (Yay) which pointed me to an online link that was dead (Boo). I vented over twitter and ended up using the Internet Wayback Machine thanks to @jalbertbowdenii.   He then pointed me to the new states data “portal” and I found that data. I had been searching for “Statename GIS Data” and was really coming up empty. All that came back was a website with no clear link to data. Lots of pics and mentions of awards and presentations…..but data.
  • One state search lead me exactly to that states data portal. A search on that portal for “shapefile” returned 0 results. After some exploring I discovered a second link to another portal which was down for maintenance. I ended up emailing the admin who has pointed me in another direction. There was another link that took me to a google map of all the states hospitals with no way to look at the data – just the map.
  • One state had all of their data as either “statewide” or “county”. If you didn’t find data in one you had to look in the other one. Of course hospitals were called “acute care health facilities” or something that to me said “here is where I will be at 70” and not in a hospital. Data was in a executable zip file.
  • One states search had me register with their data portal. I downloaded the data only to find it in an ESRI personal geodatabase format. I have ArcGIS Desktop so I opened it and exported it out. I could have done this in QGIS – but time. This website also had a ton of .e00 files. What are those you ask? Look it up kids.
  • One state’s data portal was being replaced…or had been. So all of their links were dead. One link did work – the states Health department where a search for hospitals returned a 50 some odd page PDF with hospital information and addresses scattered about.
  • Right now I’m down to 2 emails and I’ve got the region covered in hospitals. except now I’m up to 8 hours of time spent on something that shouldn’t be this hard. I know 8 hours compared to hand digitizing all this data is nothing…but….8 hours to find location data for hospitals? I’m not searching for the nearest fast food restaurant. I’m searching for a building to provide health care.

So I’ve decided that the idea of accessible GIS Data must really be a joke on some level. We hear about it. We talk about it. Vendors tell us how open their product is and how data is being shared. I’m up to 8 hours in my search. Crazy that they were digitizing this data by hand? Not so much when you look at what you have to go through to find data. How hard is it to find data relating to hospitals for your state. Look. In some cases it will be easy…in some……it’s really a joke. Open data doesn’t mean much if you can’t find it.

No two states had the same setup. Almost all on some level were discussing their “data portal” or “GIS Portal”. Only in one instance did metadata come into play….and it had the wrong online linkage. Why not put your metadata up as a page with the right online linkage? 10 states, 10 pages, 10 links, and 10 downloads. Silly – because you don’t get to spend half a year building a portal with pics of people and awards and presentations.

For those of you with data portals that are jut that – spots to share and download data. THANK YOU.

Except – I can download Mars Geology Shapefiles. Use Google for that and it’s the first return….



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