If you’re someone who presents on SQL Server topics, you have probably run into something of a wall when it comes to getting interesting spatial data sets to demonstrate. The spatial data included with the SQL Server 2008 sample databases is functional, but not particularly complex or interesting. There is free spatial data available for many different sources online, but it tends to be difficult to find, in different formats, and annoyingly difficult to load into SQL Server. And of course, the not-free spatial content out there tends to be really, really not-free, and while it may make sense to pay a premium price if you are developing premium software, but for demo purposes this is generally a non-starter.
GeoNames is an open source provider of spatial data. Essentially they have many disparate sources of free spatial content and have aggregated them into a single location, with many different access methods. They support web service access (and publish a nice set of client libraries too) which is nice for direct application integration, but to me the cool factor comes from the ability to download text dumps of the whole database or just the countries you want. Because then you can load the data into SQL Server 2008 and let the demo goodness begin.
And Ed Katibah, PM for the SQL Server spatial team, has posted instructions for loading GeoNames data into SQL Server 2008. It’s great to have these steps documented because there are quite a few of them, but hopefully you’ll only need to perform them once.
So if you have been waiting for great spatial data that’s available for free, wait no longer.
I should also point out that I became aware of this cool resource not based on my own hard work and research, but instead because of the excellent Simple Talk newsletter that Red Gate Software produces. And I should probably mention that the primary reason I blogged about it is that my friend and colleague, senior SQL Server trainer and all-around good guy Chris Randall has been working on building better spatial demo sets, and I’ve heard rumors that he occasionally reads this blog. Hopefully this will save him (and you, and me) some work…
 Please keep in mind that I don’t claim to be a SQL Server spatial expert, so what is “annoyingly difficult” for me may be “exceptionally simple” for someone with more experience, but it likely to be “annoyingly difficult” for many people.