OMB prods agencies to standardize geodata

USGS' Milo Robinson says duplication of effort among agencies collecting geospatial data pushed OMB to revise Circular A-16.

Ricky Carioti

The Office of Management and Budget has begun a campaign to standardize the government's collection and distribution of geospatial data.

Last month, it issued a revision of OMB Circular A-16, setting the first new guidelines in a dozen years for agencies that collect and maintain data about addresses, demographics and land types.

'OMB realized there was a lot of duplication of effort,' said Milo Robinson, framework coordinator for A-16 in the Geographic Information Office at the Geological Survey.

OMB wants to smooth out disparities that could stall the Geospatial One Stop portal, one of its 24 e-government initiatives. OMB associate director for IT and e-government Mark Forman also has taken over the vice-chairmanship of the Federal Geographic Data Committee, which is developing the geospatial portal.

FGDC, an interagency committee created in 1990 under an earlier revision of Circular A-16, has representatives from 17 Cabinet-level and independent agencies. Steve Griles, an Interior Department deputy secretary, is the group's chairman.

Latest changes

The latest revision of the circular emphasizes the necessity of standardized data classification. Each participating agency's databases must classify spatial data in the same way if Geospatial One Stop is to succeed.

The lack of standardization had become a barrier, said Scott Cameron, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for performance and management. He likened the data incompatibilities to saying, 'What's the difference between a stream and a creek and a brook?'

The Geospatial One Stop standards committee, a 10-member FGDC panel, is drawing up standard terms for such features as boundaries, hydrography, elevation and transportation. The group expects to reach consensus on standards for the transportation data this fall, Cameron said, with the remaining standards completed by year's end.

He said it is difficult to 'get the main players to spend time and effort to characterize data, and to get people one by one to make their data accessible online.'

The new A-16 revision also affirms the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, a set of rules for electronic coordinates created by FGDC. The changes to A-16 align the circular with a 1994 executive order that established the national spatial infrastructure, Robinson said. The National Geospatial Data Clearinghouse, at nsdi.usgs.gov, makes available standards, agency updates and information about FGDC.

OMB received its power over surveying and mapping from a 1942 executive order followed by the original 1953 Circular A-16. A 1967 revision of the circular made three departments responsible for coordination of government surveying and mapping. The 1990 revision to A-16 that created the interagency FGDC also gave guidance for collecting spatial data as well as for surveying and mapping.

The most recent revision links the management of geographic assets to budget and performance, and it assigns lead agencies for specific data layers of the national spatial infrastructure.

Many organizations and individuals might be collecting the same types of information about a watershed, Robinson said.

To avoid such duplication, 'we tried to leverage the fact that Geospatial One Stop is one of OMB's e-gov initiatives,' he said.

The lack of metadata'the who, what, when, where, why and how of a database'makes collected data difficult to find and use, and in turn makes data sharing among organizations harder, Robinson and Cameron said.

Despite agencies' slow cooperation with Geospatial One Stop, 'we will have a number of the features up and running by February,' Cameron said, and a full version by the end of next year. 'We're not talking about one humongous database; we're talking about a series of distributed databases.'

To get a handle on the amount of data the portal must consolidate, FGDC asked agencies to include any spatial data collection plans with their fiscal 2004 budget plans. The committee will post those plans on its site, at www.fgdc.gov.

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