Scholars and researchers have a new way to find and compare geospatial data and maps: the Big Ten Academic Alliance Geoportal.

The geoportal allows searching across thousands of records of openly available geographic information system (GIS) datasets, web services, and digitized historical maps from multiple data clearinghouses and library catalogs — with an interface that makes discovery easy for experienced researchers as well as neophytes.

“The ease of use is wonderful, but what’s really new and different here is a search that allows you to compare contemporary data to old maps,” said Mara Blake, spatial and numeric data librarian at the U-M Library.

Blake was part of a multi-institution collaboration that spent the last two years bringing this project to fruition. The geoportal is managed by team of librarians and geospatial specialists at 10 research institutions from across the Big Ten Academic Alliance.

L’Amérique septentrionale (North America) by Nicolas Sanson, circa 1700. View a larger version. (Clark Library Map Collection)

Participating institutions include University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University Bloomington, University of Iowa, University of Maryland, U-M, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota (host institution), Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Local contributions include records from the state of Michigan, the city of Detroit, the city of Ann Arbor, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, and scanned maps from the U-M Library’s Stephen S. Clark Library.

The service allows enhanced searching — it doesn’t host data — but inclusion in the geoportal means time was spent beefing up the metadata — the behind-the-scenes descriptive data — for augmented searching.

“As librarians, we care about access and data,” said Tim Utter, manager of U-M’s Clark Library. Making items in the public domain fully accessible is part of what the library does. “I appreciate being able to find relevant data sets by easily clicking on an area of a map.”

While the information currently available is primarily from the home states of the institutions that make up the task force, the geoportal will continue to grow and add access to more records.