Open Data and Cool Maps

We’ve started offering clients open data and open source strategy consulting, and hope to have some case studies in the coming months.

Releasing data and software (or even both) to the public seems counterproductive to good business – how could it do anything but feed the competition, or draw attention to mistakes?

It’s worth thinking one step deeper:

  1. Releasing code and data can be a conspicuous demonstration of competence, a great way to draw incoming leads and even recruit to your organization.
  2. It also signals that your value is greater than the contents of files – you’re not worried about giving away the data, because where you really shine is customization and customer service, which is much harder to copy.
  3. In a world where a million companies are selling software and services for a monthly subscription, there’s a sharp discontinuity in user acquisition at $0. Start them for free, then offer upgrades in the form of additional features or support.
  4. Competitors may learn from your data and/or your code, but that’s a short-term effect – if the overall market grows, that’s good for you, even if your competitor gets a chunk of that market.
  5. If you have mistakes in your code or your data, you want to know as soon as possible, and what better way than to increase use by offering it for free – it’s almost like outsourced testing, and in our experience, fixing a publicly known bug or inaccuracy with grace and polite thanks to the finder does no harm to your reputation.

We talk about #4 a lot – if we’re unable to fit a project into our schedule, we don’t hesitate to refer to competitors. If there are more groups delivering successful projects in our field, that’s great!

Even though the client isn’t ours, they may mention their project to other organizations, which keeps business coming to the market as a whole, and at some point that referral comes back around.

Open GIS Data

One of our favorite available sources of open data is municipal, county, and state GIS shapefiles. Most have a website with data files for roads, building footprints, lot boundaries, tax valuations, and often bodies of water, parks, or even police/fire stations.

Forsyth County (North Carolina) has a data download page here:

And N.C. State maintains a page with links to county and municipal data pages:

To start, here’s a minimalist black-and-white representation of the streets in Winston-Salem, with the thickness scaled to the speed limit (notice the bolder lines for US 52, I-40 Business, and Silas Creek Parkway):


We can do the same color scheme for a plot of the buildings in the same bounding box as above – obviously there’s no such thing as a speed limit for buildings, but the variance in footprint gives a clear visual impression of where the major buildings lie, with residential houses surrounding.


Every topographic map is interesting – here’s all of Forsyth County with a cool blue/green/yellow color gradient, with blue representing the lowest elevations in the county, and yellow the highest.

This really gives a sense of the terrain change – Winston-Salem is on a set of hills near the middle of the county, with creeks (Silas and Peters) draining to the Yadkin River, and

If you look closely, depending on your screen size, you’ll notice some anomalies in the upper middle and lower right – dark, dark blue spots that don’t merge into the surrounding colors.

Those are quarries, confirmed on Google Maps. It might make an interesting project to try to detect those automatically, and link their latitude/longitude to places registered on Google Maps or OpenStreetMap.


Lastly, this is a combination of the streets, building footprints, and tax lot outlines for Winston-Salem, colored to look like a city blueprint:


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