This is “Finding Data”, section 3.3 from the book Geographic Information System Basics (v. 1.0).
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Now that we have a basic understanding of data and information, where can we find such data and information? Though an Internet search will certainly come up with myriad sources and types of data, the hunt for relevant and useful data is often a challenging and iterative process. Therefore, prior to hopping online and downloading the first thing that appears from a web search, it is useful to frame our search for data with the following questions and considerations:
All these questions are of equal importance and being able to answer them will assist in a more efficient and effective search for data. Obviously, there are several other considerations behind the search for data, and in particular GIS data, but those listed here provide an initial pathway to a successful search for data.
As information technology evolves, and as more and more data are collected and distributed, the various forms of data that can be used with a GIS increases. Generally, and as discussed previously, a GIS uses and integrates two types of data: geographic data and attribute data. Sometimes the source of both geographic and attribute data are one in the same. For instance, the US Bureau of Census (http://www.census.gov) distributes geographic boundary files (e.g., census tract level, county level, state level) as well as the associated attribute data (e.g., population, race/ethnicity, income). What’s more is that such data are freely available at no charge. In many respects, US census data are exceptional: they are free and comprehensive. If only all data were free and comprehensive!
Obviously, each and every search for data will vary according to purpose, but data from governments tend to have good coverage and provide a point of reference from which other data can be added, compared, and evaluated. Whether you need satellite imagery data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (http://www.nasa.gov) or land use data from the United States Geological Survey (http://www.usgs.gov), such government sources tend to be reliable, reputable, and consistent. Another key element of most government data is that they are freely accessible to the public. In other words, there is no charge to use or to acquire the data. Data that are free to use are generally called public dataData that can be shared and distributed freely..
The search for data, and in particular the data that you need, is often the most time consuming aspect of any GIS-related project. Therefore, it is critical to try to define and clarify your data requirements and needs—from the temporal and geographic scales of data to the formats required—as clearly as possible and as early as possible. Such definition and clarity will pay dividends in your search for the right data, which in turn will yield better analyses and well-informed decisions.