Geospatial Data Sources

US Tornadoes 1950-2012

Finding open Geospatial data sources can be a challenge sometimes but there are plenty out there to take advantage of. Where do you find this data? What formats are they in? Are they commercially available or are they provided by the government? In this article we've come up with a list to get you started with a good foundation. Be mindful this is no where near everything but we hope what is below can lead in setting a good foundation.

US Government Open Data

    Among the most reliable and publicly available data comes from Government. 
  • Data.Gov -  As we talk about Government data we should first mention Data.Gov. Although many departments of the government still act as standalone data source producers, Data.Gov is an initiative by the federal government to have one place where anyone can go to retrieve government open data. Since it first came online a few years ago, it has grown from a loose archive of static data files to a central nexus where multiple departments are finally connecting their open data in one spot. Departments such as the National Archives are now contributing this site.  Developers can even access some data sources from the site using APIs. Data.Gov has a long way to go before it's links all the other Government departments into the initiative so you will still need to be aware of some of the other data source websites scattered.
  • Geo Gov Data - Now completely merged with Data.Gov this was a filter for all geo friendly government datasets. 
  • US CensusDemographic Data - Every 10 years the US gathers data on a national level from every citizen and business in the United States for the purpose of tax accountability but the data itself has demographic value on a large scale. The Census Bureau even has APIs for developers to bring in the data into their own applications. Visualizing Census data is nothing new but merging the data with other sources has the potential to create powerful in-depth analytic maps and statistics that drill down to the zip code. This data has tremendous value especially looking at the data in historic trends and demographic expansion related to business geographically.
  • Census TIGER Products -  Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (TIGER) Products is an extension of Census data in GIS ready formats such KML, SHP, and GDP
  • Federal Communication Commission (FCC) - Doesn't expose too much data easily discoverable on their website but what it does have is files in reference to geographic market areas of radio/cellular licenses. The FCC's website has hints at having contributed to the initiative and more data might be found there
  • USA.Gov -Points to a variety of government websites containing downloadable data essentially acting as a connector.
  • USDA Forest Service/US Live and Historic Fires Detection - The USDA MODIS data is updates multiple times a day and provides information related to the latest fires around the nation. You can find archived fire data and live fire data in many formats with the most readily usable in KML network links.
  • USGSEarthquake and Volcanic data - The USGS has one of the most open and flexible government datasets available to the public primarily related to seismic activity around the globe. Developers can find shape files, KMLs, and active data feeds to use within their applications. 
  • Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) - The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission contains worldwide data set of topography giving a free and accurate model of the Earth available on demand. 
  • US Hydrography coming from USGS contains data set related to water levels around the United States. Stations around the country monitor bodies of water, streams, and rivers to indicate a variety of things such as floods and droughts. The data is updated periodically and in static formats such as GDB and shapefiles.  
  • National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Products and Services is responsible for offering a wide range of finished products for the public such as aeronautical charts, Maritime safety data and Topographical maps. NGA is also not a contributor on GitHub which can be found here:
  • Digital Mapping Charting and Geodesy Analysis Program (DMAP) Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Mapping Branch offers a public tile server available through OGC standard web services such WMS, WMTS, KML, and WFS. The tile server contains nautical charts, Maritime Products (MODU, Broadcast Warnings, and ASAM), and aeronautical charts.
  • NASA Visible Earth is a catalog of images of earth which are more end products but can be useful in some scenarios. The data sets are easily searchable and at the very least offer unique snapshots of the planet.
  • NOAAOffice of Coast Survey GIS Data contains not only nautical charts but GIS data feeds such as WMS Services for maritime watches and warnings, limits and boundaries, and historical maritime map references.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) contains numerous datasets, models, decision support tools, and programs that EPA manages, oversees, supports, or uses. Programs, tools and data cover the following categories: Air, Water, Land Preservation & Restoration, Healthy, Communities & Ecosystems, Compliance & Stewardship. 
  • US Fish and Wildlife Services Geospatial Services contain data related to the following: Coastal Barrier Resources (CBRS), Critical Habitat, USFWS, Ecosystem Regions, Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs), Migratory Bird Conservation, North American Bird Conservation Joint Ventures, National Wetlands Inventory (NWI), National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), Boundary data, NWRS Transportation Assets, Office Locations, and Regional Boundaries. 
  • National Park Service GIS Data doesn't host any specific datasets accept for perhaps downloadable maps of the National Parks around the nation but they do make available a wide list of links and resources that are related to the National Parks which much of it is managed by the USGS. Regardless, this linked assets provides a good starting point for anyone searching for NPS data.
  • National Counter-terrorism Center (NCTC) - does not openly contain GIS data but reports about threats and activities are a good indication of events worldwide. NCTC does contain data available on request but not necessarily publicly available.
  • Washington DC GIS Catalog contains one of the most publicly available and extensive GIS databases for a city and a model we hope many cities replicate. Everything from crime data to property data is available in a variety of GIS friendly formats.
  • Pro-Logic GAPS Feeds (USSTRATCOM) - Not necessarily updated this site at the very least gives users an idea of what can be done with Google KML files related to government. Some of these files contain a good foundation of data sets as related to Homeland security and US based infrastructure. 

Public/Commercial Data

  • Social Explorer - "Social Explorer provides quick and easy access to current and historical census data and demographic information. The easy-to-use web interface lets users create maps and reports to illustrate, analyze, and understand demography and social change. In addition to its comprehensive data resources, Social Explorer offers features and tools to meet the needs of demography experts and novices alike." - from their webpage 
  • National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS)  - "funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) provides, free of charge, aggregate census data and GIS-compatible boundary files for the United States between 1790 and 2012." - from their website
  • University of Texas Maps - Using the University of Texas as an example many colleges provide open data for the public to take advantage of. Whether the data is available for each map varies. One example is the current Ebola Alerts Map.
  • Free Map Tools - GIS analyst at home but don't have all the money spend on tools and applications then you may want to check out Free Map Tools. From their website they describe themselves as "An online resource that enables visitors to easily and quickly use maps in order to measure, search and overlay mark-up elements on maps for a wide range of useful applications."
  • Old Maps - is a website to help users search for historical maps. The site then redirects the user to where they can purchase prints or download the data depending on the map. It should be noted that the David Rumsey Map collection is a major source of historical maps but you can also find those on other websites that provide those maps for free.
  • Free GIS Datasets - This page contains a categorized list of links to over 300 sites providing freely available geographic datasets

Google Earth Based Data - Working with KML/KMZ

Google Earth as Displayed in Google Maps

Google Earth has been a major influence over the last decade in bringing Geospatial awareness to the common explorer. With that said KML and KMZ data are very useful and flexible formats for dynamic and static datasets not just for Google Earth but for online map applications as well. Here is a small list of some sources of those unique file types.

  • Google Earth Gallery contains an archive of Google Earth ready maps and data provided by Google and contributed by many viewable through Google Map Engine along with a download to Google Earth. 
  • KML Factbook - This site is contains world wide demographic data and acts as an extension of the CIA worldfactbook to download the data in KML format.
  • Google Earth Hacks - contains a library of unique Google Earth resources, files, and side applications to aide in what any user might need to do using Google Earth. 
  • Google Earth Blog - Links to Google Earth resources courtesy of an awesome blog worth subscribing to just as much as ours is. ;)

Fusion Tables

I can't end this article without mentioning the value of FusionTables which is a great resource for any GIS user. It's a free resource by Google in Google Drive that allows the user to upload GIS datasets in KML or Shapefiles (Some conversion maybe necessary, or even a spreadsheet of data into their online data table which allows the data to be quickly visualized in map format, aggregated with other FusionTables or accessed through data points such as KML or FusionTable APIs. This tool essentially allows the user to turn static date into dynamic data. Here are a few examples of Public Fusion Tables datasets.

There is an abundance of free GIS datasets out there and we are by no ways listing all that is available. An honorable mention should be social media APIs available to allow for the extraction of social chatter from applications such as Twitter, Google+, Facebook and more. We may get into that with a future article. Our goal is to at least increase awareness of what is out there for GIS specific purposes for starters. Do you know any government or commercial data out there please post in the comments. This list is very US heavy but we'd like to add more information on worldwide free GIS information available so please help us create awareness on what's out there.