Monday, September 14, 2015

Bounding Rectangles - A Case for Something Better

It’s 2015. Almost 2016. And the best we can do to show the extent of a data set is a bounding rectangle?  By their very nature bounding rectangles are not particularly helpful, especially for geographic footprints that are not at all a rectangle. 

Anyone who has searched for, generated metadata for, published, or tried to download geographic data has run into the bounding rectangle.  It is usually displayed in a rather small, set to the side, unusable map graphic. It certainly seems that in this day and age we could do more than that. 

The Alexandria Digital Library Project is almost 20 years old (  This project described a gazetteer for geospatial data that would use a real footprint as a location index that could be embedded in any number of applications. 

What if we could select a basic set of geopolitical boundaries to register our data and the inset map would actually show the boundary of the state, county, city, or park that the data was describing or contained within.  Granted there might be issues in finding an agreeable boundary to use for a city especially with changing annexations and de-annexations and in many parts of the world the boundaries of countries are changing and evolving.  But clearly we should be able to do better than a bounding rectangle.

Maybe we could even develop a method for using a real map to search for available geospatial data. 

Imagine if the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) ( had more than a point for each name? What if there was also a polygon of the area covered by that name?

While it is relatively simple to link lists of names or point locations to Census geography, shouldn’t it be routine to identify the footprint of published data by the actual data extent?  This could be extended to symbolize the footprint by the date last updated and the data steward or data publisher. 

Maybe it’s time to start thinking outside the bounding rectangle box.

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