What is authoritative geospatial data?

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authoritative geospatial data

National mapping and cadastral agencies (NMCAs) routinely claim that their geospatial data is ‘authoritative’ or that it has been created from authoritative sources. The term certainly has an impressive ring to it. But what does it actually mean?

In the geospatial context, the term authoritative geospatial data can be traced back to land surveyors. They define authoritative as data that contains a surveyor’s professional stamp and that can be used for purposes such as engineering design, determination of property boundaries, and permit applications. In essence, the term carries a certification of positional accuracy.

For decades, government organizations have been recognized as the official source of geographic information. And being able to label their information as authoritative is important for these agencies not only because users give such information greater credit but also because it helps secure government investment to ensure that the data they are providing is updated, supported, and used by public services.

However, in today’s world, there are a number of geospatial data, information, and service producers/providers that are serving different needs and purposes of both private and publicly oriented users. These new data, information, and service producers/providers hail from the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors alike. So, to maintain their status as the providers of authoritative geospatial data, what are some of the characteristics that NMCAs must focus on?

To find out, not-for-profit geospatial data advocacy organizations European Spatial Data Research (EuroSDR) and EuroGeographics, along with Dutch research university KU Leuven, talked to researchers and practitioners in NMCAs across Europe. From the discussions, numerous characteristics of authoritative data emerged, including:

  • Legally binding: Meaning that the term authoritative should only be applied to data that is legislated or regulated
  • Accountability: The organization claiming to provide authoritative data must be legally accountable for the data production, provision, high-quality, and/or maintenance of said data
  • Uniqueness: The dataset should stand out from other datasets by its characteristics, which could also mean that one organization gets the sole rights to produce and/or provide that data for wider use
  • Mandate: Linking strongly to the legally binding characteristic discussed above, mandate refers to the legal mandate by authority, produced, processed and issued by the author
  • Mandatory use: Meaning that other (public) authorities or other stakeholders are legally obliged to solely use authoritative data and no other data
  • Liability: Though the participating NMCAs did not completely agree if liability is a full characteristic of authoritative data, some participants strongly stated that their organizations are liable for their ‘authoritative’ actions and products with all the consequences, meanwhile others are not
  • Official: Official could refer to the data itself or to the organization that produces, provides, and/or maintains it, but it should be set by the law.
  • (Public) authority provision: Referring to data provided by or on behalf of a (public) authority body. Some participants feel that authoritative data could be also provided (produced, maintained) by private companies (e.g. by means of outsourcing)
  • Reference data: A preferred term in some countries that includes the obligation that it is mandatory for everybody to use this data
  • Trusted: It is crucial to provide data that can be trusted by the users in the long term or to build a lasting organizational trust
  • Standardized: The production and maintenance processes/procedures/protocols should be specified according to international standards
  • Continuity: Building up a tradition in the production, maintenance and/or provision of highly qualitative data that are backed up by legislation
  • High quality: The quality of authoritative data is higher than the quality of competing data and that correct data enhances the appetite for more quality of data
  • Quality management system: It is important that the validation of high quality of authoritative data is assured as authorities are often liable for their data produced, provided or maintained
  • Certified: When data are produced by third parties, the data must be validated on the basis of a set of standardized criteria
  • Traceability: The data generation has to be fully traceable with clear documentation of the process of how the data has been created and/or maintained
  • Maintained: It is crucial to communicate how the authoritative data is maintained and how it will be updated in the future
  • Usage: The usage could differ by size (used by everyone, all public authorities, a selected group of public authorities), purpose (for public policy, noncommercial or enhancement of public values), obligation to use or not to use, and degree of usability (is it easy to use or not necessary to use)
  • Accessibility: Since accessibility increases the usage of the data and makes it more trusted, there should be easy means to provide authoritative data via geoportals or other relevant platforms
  • Understood: All the stakeholders must understand the meaning and value of using authoritative data

Accordingly, EuroGeographics has proposed this working definition of authoritative geospatial data: “Authoritative data is data provided by or on behalf of a public body (authority) which has an official mandate to provide it, that is based on a set of known criteria to ensure (inter alia) high data quality, and that is required to be used or aimed towards extensive use and reuse within the public sector and society as a whole.”

What are your views? Do you think there is a need for organizations within the public sector to take up a central role in the governance of authoritative geospatial data?

Ishveena is a geospatial enthusiast and a veteran of creating and managing compelling digital content for organizations and individuals. When she is not making magic at her desk, you are likely to find her exploring nature, eating her way through life, or binge-watching funny animal videos.