Restricting Access to National LiDAR: Is it worth it?

Policy makers in many countries are debating whether it is worthwhile to open their National LiDAR holdings – collected with tax-payer money – for free (or cheap) open access or whether they should continue to restrict access and charge potential users of the data to recoup expenses. Most would agree that hurdle-free, instant online access allows to exploit this valuable resource to the fullest and to maximize its benefit to the citizens. But some argue that opening this data eliminates the revenue stream the government needs to finance future surveys. Is this really true? No!

On November 21st, 2014 Louise Huby made this “Freedom of Information” request to the Environment Agency which are responsible for collecting, processing, and selling LiDAR data and derivatives for England with a focus on flood mapping applications. This seems to mainly be handled by the Environment Agency Geomatics, a specialist business unit within the Environment Agency.

Dear Environment Agency,
Please could you provide me with a breakdown by year of
all revenue made from the sale of LiDAR Data?
Yours faithfully,
Louise Huby

Later she added

Please could you provide me with a breakdown by year
of all revenue made from the sale of LiDAR Data?
Could you provide me with the information requested for
the following years: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009,
2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.

A week later, on November 28th, Louise Huby received this answer:

EA_annual_sales_turnover

Hence the annual sales turnover (*) for LiDAR data was around £323,000 per year between 2007 and 2014.  It would be interesting to know how the annual average of £323,000 divides up further in terms of delivered products (raw LiDAR points or derivative), individual sale volume, price per square kilometer, type of customer, … Another request anyone?

(*) Sales turnover is the total amount of revenue generated during the calculation period. The revenue included in this calculation is from both cash sales and credit sales.

According to Wikipedia, the Environment Agency had an operational budget of £1,025,000,000 in 2007/08 (about half of this for flood risk management). This means the renevue from LiDAR sales is equivalent to 0.03 percent of the Agencies’s operating budget. I find this number shockingly low. Is this meager sales revenue an acceptable reason to keep the LiDAR locked up and inaccessible to the public?

Finland opened its LiDAR data in May 2012 and Denmark freed their national holdings in March 2013. Also Holland has turned around 180 degrees on its original LiDAR access policy by releasing its comprehensive AHN2 National LiDAR data set (including the raw point cloud) as free and open online data that was at first guarded and sold at high cost. I was given several reasons for this:
  • The main customer of LiDAR are the many branches of government from municipalities to federal agencies who often did not use it before, because it was “too difficult to obtain”. If someone needed geospatial data to make a decision but first had to fill out lots of paperwork and justification forms, possibly find a budget, and wait weeks for the delivery, then many questions had become irrelevant by the time the data arrived and decision were made without or with less good data.
  • Open LiDAR brings a bigger “return of investment” because the data – whose value is highly inflationary – gets used immediately for all purposes and not only when the anticipated potential of exploiting it sufficiently outweighs the upfront investment in time and money for aquiring it.
  • New business cases become worthwhile for which the LiDAR becomes “raw material” used to create new products and provide new services. This creates additional high-tech companies that pay taxes and desirable high-skilled jobs that would otherwise not exist. This can only happen if the resource “LiDAR” is either free or very cheap. It benefits both government and citizens as additional services and products are becoming available.
  • Overall: faster, better, cheaper service for all, full exploitation of the available resource, and higher return (even financially) in the long run.
One of the biggest drawbacks of trying to monetize the LiDAR is not only that there will be fewer services and products created by private sector businesses … but they will also be much more expensive. Those companies that took the risk to buy the data in the first place will charge a high premium on their services and products. And their biggest customer will be the government. Hence, an initial sale (quick money) will lead to years of high expenses for the government when it has to buy back the derived data products and services … costing many times more than was earned in the initial data sales.
In contrast, if the data is free for commercial use, then (a) the industry can only charge for the added value, (b) many more business cases suddenly make sense and even smaller added-value service or product can be offered, and (c) existing data is exploited for all decisions it is needed, (d) other agencies, universities, and private companies can focus on collecting complementing (instead of duplicate) data, …
To summarize: Opening data for free (or cheap) online access is seen as more cost-effective in the long run. It also allows the government to make better decisions, provide the citizens better service, and assures their national geospatial data holdings are exploited to the fullest …
Here some further reading on this topic by MetroGIS based on ideas of the NSGIC (National States Geographic Information Council) who is committed to efficient government through adoption of geospatial information by making “… all non-sensitive geospatial data, produced or maintained using taxpayer funds, a part of the public record.”

Keeping ESRI Honest

Friends of LASzip and LAZ, it has come to my attention (from more than one source) that a certain company East of LA has started to more aggressively promote their proprietary LiDAR format known as the “LAZ clone” (more hereherehere and here but also read the comments) by approaching individual stake holders of the LiDAR community. Trying to convince others to drop support of the open source LASzip compression for LiDAR management, server, and storage in favour of the proprietary “LAZ clone”, said company resorts – if needed – to bad-mouthing the LAZ format with made up arguments that attack the suitability of LASzip for “professional” use.

It appears the LiDAR lock-in PR campaign is now in full swing despite of my repeated attempts to reach out to said company for creating a joint LAS 1.4 compressor that avoids fragmenting the LiDAR data market. And I may just be hearing back about a tiny tip of the drink-the-koolaid iceberg PR. This seems to mark the start of the “clone wars” that we at rapidlasso tried to avoid … (-;

laz_clonesOne way to engage the Empire is to draw them out from the darkness into full technical transparency. After all, the only argument for why the “LAZ clone” had to be created was that LAZ lacks a “particular feature” for efficient employment in the cloud, yet the question what this “particular feature” was has always been dodged (because we would have happily added it to LAZ).

How can you help?

  1. Tell us about any “LAZ clone” campaigs you hear about. Especially those targetting stake holders.
  2. Attend LiDAR training events and Webinars by ESRI that may be “teaching” the unsuspecting newbies to lock their LiDAR into the zLAS format as part of a “smart management strategy” and
    – record any arguments made for the “LAZ clone” or against LAZ so we can publically defute them
    – keep them honest by making your unwillingness to drink the koolaid on zLAS known as early as possible.
    – ask tough questions and disrupt with a strong technical critique on the user-unfriendly and vendor lock-in nature of a closed proprietary format soon as they “teach” the LAS to zLAS conversion
  3. Educate folks about the difference between open LAZ and propietary zLAS.

You may comment below (also anonymously) or email us at ‘honestesri@rapidlasso.com‘ if you have any (juicy?) details about “LAZ clone” campaigns or on video or live training courses where it was “taught” to lock-up the LiDAR into zLAS during an initial “optimization” step …

Geoinformatics magazine interviews rapidlasso

Eric van Rees, the editor of the Geoinformatics magazine, met with rapidlasso GmbH at INTERGEO 2013 in Essen to have a quick chat about LAStools, LASzip, and PulseWaves as well as our LiDAR processing toolboxes for ArcGIS and QGIS.

Geoinformatics magazine interviews rapidlasso

In the three-page article we talk about the beginnings of rapidlasso’s software, about when and how the company got started, about our various open and closed source products, and about current projects. The interview was published in the most recent October/November edition of the Geoinformatics magazine that was distributed in print at the SPARELMF 2013 conference in Amsterdam this week. If you did not get a copy you can read the online version of the magazine here.

Can you copyright LiDAR?

UPDATE: The situation has changed. Make sure you also read this.

A few weeks ago, I wanted to demonstrate how geometric compression can shorten download times for online dissemination of 3D archeological artifacts. The demo failed. My web page was gone. The web admin told me later that he had to delete it after receiving an email from a director at CyArk stating that I was “[…] hosting unauthorized content from CyArk […] ” and that “[…] Dr. Isenburg gained unauthorized access to our information and the re-posted it to his webpage […]”. Bummer. Unintentionally, I had become “the raider of the CyArk”. A point plunderer. A LiDAR looter. A scan scrounger. A laser pirate … arrr … (-;

How did I fall so low? After reading this LiDAR news article about CyArk’s new online 3D viewer I invested serious time into understanding their content delivery system and suggested how to shorten download times as I had done a lot of prior research on this particular topic (see this, this, this or this page). So, I created several interactive java-based web pages for them to demonstrate how – with some quantization, simple prediction, and clever scripting – more web-efficient 3D content might be possible. I did these experiments with their data sets to allow an apples-to-apples comparison: a point model (Ti’kal) and a mesh model (Mount Rushmore).

cyark_mount_rushmore_small

After a long technical exchange the person at CyArk suddenly demanded that I take down the compressed content. I was surprised and asked why I should have to delete these illustrative examples on 3D compression that represented a significant investment in volunteered time and energy.

Me: “What you mean with take down? Delete it from my webpages? But I am using it as a purely educational example for scanner precision and coordinate resolution. I am not promoting it in any context that would interfere with the mission of CyArk. I do not quite follow the imperative here. Aren’t you a non-profit site dedicated to science and education? And anyone could download those points clouds from your site just the way I did it. It’s not rocket science … (-:”

Person at CyArk: “And, yes, to clarify my request, I would like you to delete any content from your server or webpages. Sorry if I was vague. Thanks!”

Me: “I believe I am in accordance with both Ben (Kacyra)’s vision and the creative commons license with my educational use of the 3D content (see http://archive.cyark.org/copyright). Is there something I am missing?”

I considered myself well informed about CyArk’s mission on providing open access to 3D data for research, education, and virtual tourism through various media such as Wikipedia and Ben Kacyra’s visionary TED talk. I assumed that my creative commons argument had resonated because I did not hear back from them. I only realized that CyArk was not interested in explaining their licensing but simply had my pages removed when I tried to access this demo.

A few days ago I saw Tom Greaves, executive director at CyArk, commenting “Sweeeet use of CyArk data.” on their blog entry which describes the creation of a sugary fudge replica of Ti’kal – the very same data set that I had been using – for the launch event of a new sugar series by British-based multinational agribusiness Tate & Lyle.

Tik’al Fudge Cake made with golden caster sugar, over 80 cm tall

I like to have fun with LiDAR and appreciate the educational factor of such events. Yet I wonder whether the Guatemalan people would be that much happier to see their ancient cultural heritage presented as a piece of cake to promote a new line of sugars than to see it used as a demo on how to Web-optimize 3D content … (-;

I took this as an opportunity to – once more – inquire about the creative commons license of CyArk and I finally received an answer from Tom.

Dear Dr. Isenburg,

Please understand that only some of […]     […] have any questions.

Sincerely,
Tom Greaves

Executive Director
CyArk

Unfortunately Tom did “not recall giving” me his “permission to publish” his “private correspondence” as he pointed out shortly after this blog article went live, so I had to remove the reprint of his email. It essentially said that much of the data collected by CyArk remains property of the site owners and that Cake for Breakfast obtained permission to use the 3D scan as the secret ingredient for their Mayan bake job.

copyright cartoon

After inquiring with Tom “So which models are creative commons and which not?” I quickly got the surprising response from Tom that: “None of our 3D point cloud is available under Creative Commons. Only some of the 2D image data is covered by this.

Now this is certainly not what I had been reading into their press releases and news articles. The data-generous openness in access to 3D data that is advertised for example on their mission statement: “Digital Preservation is ‘Preserving cultural heritage sites through collecting, archiving and providing open access to data created by 3D laser scanning, digital modeling, and other state-of-the-art technologies,’ the CyArk Mission.” is apparently not the practiced reality.

So I asked in my LAStools user forum about the experiences of others: What are the most and least permitting licenses for such data and what do they mean in practice? How do I know what is open and what not? Can you help clarifying what “creative commons” licensing means and what it allows and forbids so I don’t violate anyone’s license in the future. This sparked discussions with interesting outcomes:

  1. the creative commons (non-commercial) license is useless
    The folks behind @OpenAccessArch picked up the story to provide their view of the particularities of the creative commons (non-commercial) license used by CyArk in a long blog post titled “Creative Commons Non-commercial A Cruel Joke.
  2. it is in general not possible to copyright a LiDAR scan
    Doug Rocks-Macqueen from @OpenAccessArch also started the fundamental discussion whether it is even possible to copyright a LiDAR scan in the first place. Apparently not – at least not for an object whose copyright has already expired and for details read this message thread. His closing argument was that in this legal battle between Meshwerks, Inc. and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc. the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s opinion that “3D models of physical objects, if faithfully and accurately representing the original, are not original enough to warrant copyright protection.”
  3. do not engage in open-washing … (-:
    In CyArk’s defense it needs to be said that there is probably a collision between their vision and the contract terms specified by the different site owners that they have to respect in order to get the permission to scan a site. What is lacking are clear terms of use in their communications and proper protection mechanisms. The academic pioneers of 3D scanning at Stanford university had to deal with similar issues during their Digital Michelangelo Project and created ScanView: a secure client / server rendering system that permits users to examine 3D models, but not extract the underlying data. In summary: do not claim your data is open and allow access to it when it is not.

With all the publicity I was worried that my little rabble rousing might be perceived as disruptive instead of constructive by the community until someone reassured me that: “I think we’re all quite happy that the discussion is happening. Between you and me, CyArk have a reputation as being rather less open with their data than their publicity would suggest.” … (-;

Martin @rapidlasso

PS: Be aware that all comments to this article will be considered “creative commons”. Or maybe not … (-;

cyark_tikal_sugarcubes_400The (loosely related) image shown above was obtained here and is courtesy of CyArk. I assume this use is allowed under their copyright and does not violate the creative commons (non-commercial) license … (-;

Addendum (May 1st, 2013): As a result of this article CyArk not only updated their copyright notice to exclude point clouds from the Creative Commons license but also added a very clear data use policy statement.