Shawn P. McCarthy | Internaut: Geospatial LOB may need more help

Shawn P. McCarthy

Earlier this year, the Office of Management and Budget informed federal agencies about three new lines of business. The most interesting'an effort to develop governmentwide geospatial data systems'could be the most difficult to get off the ground. But the potential for cross-agency and cross-platform geospatial efforts could be enormous.

OMB identifies LOBs as focus areas where agencies can eliminate redundancies, reduce the cost of government and improve service to citizens.

At this point, many agencies are focused on the other LOBs while keeping a watchful eye on geospatial. Most like the idea of displaying government data via maps (imagine checking for available hospital beds in an emergency by clicking on a map), but many are concerned that such systems can be complex and expensive to build, especially if they want real-time data. The biggest problem? Standards have not yet fully formed and agencies are hesitant to spend money backing the wrong standard.

This is where OMB could step in and set a more clear direction for the Geospatial LOB. OMB has taken a shepherding approach to most LOBs, setting goals but allowing agencies and committees flexibility to make technology decisions. In most cases, that's a wise choice. But the geospatial effort could become a test case for how larger LOB initiatives may need to be corralled by OMB and moved in a positive direction by urging specific goals and standards. This would make it easier for agencies to understand what is expected of them.

One likely winner in the standards battle is the geospatial data standard called the National Grid, available from the Federal Geographic Data committee at www.fgdc.gov. The committee is also developing broad metadata standards that will help agencies understand various data sets.

Another option is the American National Standards Institute's Spatial Data Transfer Standard. It's been around since the early 1990s and has a solid user base. But it represents an older way of sharing geospatial data. For example, in some circumstances it calls for carrying mapping data between systems rather than simply overlaying new data on map systems.

There are several other possible solutions that agencies can adopt, from raw latitude and longitude data to a variety of homegrown systems. And while most systems are able to export data in a format that can be shared across agencies, it's obvious standards will become more critical as the government builds GIS-enabled applications.

And there are other challenges. Some groups are adapting Google Earth's Keyhole Markup Language as a de facto standard. It's a powerful system, but it may not support all the functions agencies need.

Moreover, many geospatial systems are still built on static maps. This has to change. Map data itself needs to be tagged, stored and imported in near real-time so if something is updated, for example a washed-out road, all maps are immediately updated.

Geospatial systems are a long way from serving as cross-agency platforms that help agencies improve data analysis and decision-making. Agencies remain interested in geospatial systems but may need a nudge in the right direction. If the owners of geospatial data repositories can standardize their information, both machines and government employees will use it more effectively. That's the real goal of the LOB.

Former GCN writer Shawn P. McCarthy is senior analyst and program manager for IDC Government Insights of McLean, Va. E-mail him at smccarthy@idc.com.

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