The critical role of accurate and up-to-date spatial information in disaster prevention and management has become increasingly apparent in the age of digital technology, as demonstrated in the popular Netflix production “High Water.” But why is that so?

In “High Water”, one of the most popular last year’s Netflix production, we see the main character making a wrong decision based on an outdated topographical map. It was the beginning of a digital era in spatial modelling. She had to believe information from scanned maps delivered to her by others. Without access to any official data portal or metadata, she could not make any quality check of her data. The results were devastating – the anti-flood protection dam had been removed in the wrong place, causing a flood on cow farms.

The TV series was based on real events, yet it was an interpretation. It does not change that we can learn some lessons from it. One of them is the importance of open access to good-quality data.

Why does open access to geographical data matter?

The problem of data collection can be solved in many different ways. It can be collected voluntarily (OpenStreetMap), by private companies (Google, Microsoft) or by governmental institutions (Ordnance Survey, GUGiK). What is important is to make them available to the public.

When every minute matters in an emergency, there is no time for that. It also often puts economically motivated limitations on how much data can be acquired. As in the environment, everything is connected, and the real source of phenomena is often hidden. If the researcher is limited by data access, the problem might never be solved, or the solution may be wrong.

Even the most efficient process of ordering/buying data always takes some time to deliver information to specialists who needs it!

The other aspect is the quality of data. Of course, everything is double-checked before making that available, but even the best datasets have some errors.

Making the data open to everyone drastically increases the number of users that might spot and report the error before any important decision is made based on wrong information.

The other reason for opening the data access is the cost of paying for the data. Spatial data is often the basic source of information for public institutions, researchers or engineering companies. All of them work mostly on projects financed by public funding.

If they need to acquire the data, they calculate their costs into the project’s costs. In that model, we often face the situation when public funds are used to pay for data collected by public institutions. In the end, is completely unnecessary to transfer public funds via institutions back to their source.

How the access to data changing?

Open data downloader for QGIS by EnviroSolutions

A lot has changed since the “High Water” action time.

Today, most of the official, government-collected geographical data datasets in Poland are open. They can be easily accessed by the webpage or downloaded directly to the computer using QGIS “Pobieracz danych GUGiK” plug-in. Everyone can access topographical data, aerial imagery (also in infrared), flood modelling results and many more.

The work of specialists is not limited by data access anymore.