Geographic information systems find their place in federal sector

Geographic information systems are crucial to effectively managing government and helping federal, state and local government agencies deal with crises, said Mark Forman, associate director for IT and e-government in the Office of Management and Budget.

'GIS is the glue for government management in the future,' Forman said Wednesday at a federal user conference sponsored by ESRI, a GIS software vendor based in Redlands, Calif. 'Your area has more executive level support than virtually any other initiative of e-government.'

Forman said that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York, the city's GIS helped first responders react quickly and accurately. 'That's been briefed up and down the chain at the White House,' he said.

Federal demand for GIS has climbed with 'new needs in homeland security just in the last 24 months,' said ESRI president Jack Dangermond. He said 30,000 government Web sites now use ESRI technology to present data in spatial terms.

The company announced Tuesday that it received a three-year General Services Administration blanket purchasing agreement for the Department of Interior to draft enterprise software licenses of the company's GIS products.

The deal was modeled on a similar purchase agreement for enterprise licensing between ESRI and the Agriculture Department in October 2001, said Hord Tipton, Interior's CIO.

'It's standardizing us on software,' Tipton said. The department is 'getting a lot more product for the money (we) do spend.'

But Dennis Lytle, a GIS program manager for USDA, said while the department's enterprise licensing agreement helps identify standards and trim work loads, it still raises challenges. Each agency, he said, has its own needs and culture.

Federal users at the conference said GIS plays a role in numerous processes, such as showing patterns in cross-border alien smuggling cases, mapping high-risk areas for wildfires and analyzing international populations for calculating global aid breakdowns.

Even recent events have demanded the use of GIS technology. Less than 24 hours after the explosion of space shuttle Columbia, NASA and emergency officials in Nacogdoches, Texas, received detailed maps of 27 counties encircling the debris area from a Stephen F. Austin State University GIS lab and Forest Resources Institute.

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