Is a national GIS on the map?

Agencies find new ways to use geospatial data, as ESRI and others promote a nationwide system

Government has embraced geographic information systems so thoroughly that the G in GIS might as well stand for government. Agencies big and small at the federal, state and local levels have long looked to GIS to make sense of data and how it integrates with location.

But with improvements in mapping tools and Web-based applications, geospatial data is no longer the sole domain of engineers or researchers. Topographic maps with layered demographic, environmental and other data abound on the Web. At one time, satellite data was secret stuff that only the intelligence agencies could see, said Jeff Vining, research vice president at Gartner. “Now everybody can get satellite data from the Web,” he said.

In recent years, the power of GIS has become increasingly apparent in disseminating a wide array of information visually, from pandemic data to congressional districts and flood zones. As GIS has become recognized as a powerful situational awareness tool, the idea of a developing a national GIS has also developed grass-roots support in government and industry.

The concept of a national GIS has been floating around in various forms for perhaps 15 years, said Jack Dangermond, president and CEO of ESRI. Technology has now advanced to the point where a national GIS is doable, he said.

Dangermond is part of a 28-member group that’s focused on the development of a national GIS (, which he said will accomplish at least three things.

  1. It will involve better management of geographic data. One example is imagery. Currently geospatial images are collected by state, local and federal agencies, so there’s a lot of redundancy.
  2. The committee is pushing for imagery for the nation, where the country is flown over once a year and images are taken. These images would be made available to all tiers of government and the public. Consolidating those flights would save an estimated $140 million a year.
  3. Those high-resolution images would be disseminated on the Web and available to organizations as downloadable chunks.

A national GIS also could promote economic recovery by creating new technical and support jobs.

However, a few hurdles stand in the way of a national GIS. For one, state and local government agencies, not federal ones collect and maintain some of the datasets, Dangermond said. So some of the data wouldn’t be centralized. “That’s one of the interesting architectural dimensions of this, that we can manage some data locally, like land records,” he said. The challenge is integrating the data because, for example, not all counties are automated.

The long-term vision for a national GIS is that it will let people combine data so that they could tailor applications for science, government and consumers. “Some people like to call these mashups, but they go far beyond the notion of a mashup, using modeling, suitability analyses and location studies,” he said.

When a national GIS emerges, it will be a composite of many pieces, possibly aggregated at some levels, and in turn made available for specialized applications, Dangermond said. It will be open and available to everyone, he said. “The taxpayers paid for it.” A recent California court case backs up that opinion, ruling that the Homeland Security Act does not shield county land data unless overriding privacy or security issues exist (County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court, 09 S.O.S. 723). Most of the GIS layers people want to use don’t have privacy or security issues, he said.

Dangermond cited Maryland’s state GIS, StateStat (, as a possible model for a national GIS. When Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was the mayor of Baltimore, he used the city’s GIS, CitiStat, as a statistics-based approach to management and performance measurement. Now as governor, he’s implementing the same technology for state government services. Working with Towson University, O’Malley and Maryland state agencies have also built an application called GreenPrint (, which has the goal of planning open space and using it as a framework for conservation.

Occasionally, there’s conflict among federal, state and local governments about geospatial data, Gartner’s Vining said. State and local governments spend the money on the aircraft used to collect land imagery. “So sometimes there’s a little squabbling between the two: ‘Hey, we’re the ones who took the risk. Now the feds want it for free.’ ”

But to paraphrase the poet John Donne, no map is an island. By its nature, geospatial data has to intersect, integrate, connect and communicate with multiple layers of diverse data — across agency boundaries. And several government projects offer examples of how it can work.

For example, the Agriculture Department’s Risk Management Agency uses information from the Army Corps of Engineers in its GIS that creates high-risk-rate maps, showing areas that are prone to flooding or have soils with a history of low productivity. This information is of great interest to insurance companies who sell crop insurance, said James Hipple, remote sensing and GIS adviser at RMA. About 40 agency employees work on creating the high-risk-rate maps. The agency is working on integrating the maps into a Web browser-based system that people could easily access, he said.

RMA builds GIS layers for soil, flood plain data and levee data, Hipple said. The GIS that RMA uses also ties into USDA’s enterprise architecture, where other organizations, such as the department’s Agricultural Research Service, can access it.

A GIS offers a map-centric way of learning about an environment, said Jerry Johnston, the Environmental Protection Agency’s geospatial information officer. “Almost everything we do at EPA is based on the idea of place,” he said.

EPA scientists use a set of browser-based geospatial data and analytic services called the GeoWeb, Johnston said. Users can type in an address and see relevant geospatial data, such as where all the creeks and streams are in relation to a housing development. Centralizing the agency’s data services has been key, he said.

“I’m hoping we can expose more of our analytic engines externally,” Johnston said. Say a person lives downstream from a creek or stream. They could query the analytic engine to find out what sort of toxic releases or regulated chemicals might come downstream, he said. GIS could give people “not just data but analytic capacity,” he said.

An example of the progress EPA is making in this direction is NEPAssist, an interactive Web site based on the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA requires all agencies to inform the public if a federal agency plans to develop a construction project or if a state wants to use federal money for construction. The project needs to go through an environmental review in which the environmental effects are assessed.

NEPAssist uses ESRI Web GIS technologies to help facilitate that process. The application guides users, helping them design construction diagrams and scenarios, Johnston said. The site gives people the ability to project the impact of a construction scenario.

EPA also has used ESRI’s tools to study the environmental impact of human activities on the Chesapeake Bay. “For years, we’ve been creating these really successful cartographic products,” he said. “But what we’ve found is, as we create all these indicators, the reports get very thick. You have several hundred pages full of maps and charts. The EPA is working with ESRI to expose a lot more of this material in a Web application, so users will be able to use the map to drill in and see the metrics, charts and graphics that they want to see.” 

Use of GIS tools has facilitated transparency in dealing with the community and spreading the message, Johnston said. “Now we can have a public meeting where we can bring up a map of the U.S. and say, ‘If we make this regulatory decision, this will happen environmentally.’ ”

GIS is also helping government harness the wind. Marguerite Kelly, senior project manager at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and its National Wind Technology Center, studies wind as a renewable energy source. Wind is receiving a lot of attention as a form of energy that could be tapped to ease some of the nation’s reliance on petroleum and other non-renewable fuels. For example, the total installed wind capacity in the United States went from 2,000 megawatts in 1999 to 25,300 megawatts in 2008.

The lab uses GIS tools to map where “the good wind is,” Kelly said. Is the wind better in the summer or winter? During the night or the day? At 50 meters up or 100 meters?

“We use ESRI products to visualize the data by putting together different layers: park data from the National Park Service, terrain data from USGS, wind data from NASA’s satellite data,” Kelly said. “We combine that with weather data, process it with Census [Bureau] data, transmission line data from the utilities, and layer it all together so we can answer those questions.”

For example, one of the windiest areas in the United States is on American Indian land. GIS technology gives Kelly the information so she is “able to describe to the tribes where their resource is and how to get it to market.” The wind maps are posted on a Web site,

During the past few years, government has come to realize that GIS is limited only by the imagination, Vining said. Earth, wind, water: GIS as a decision-making tool is helping government harness and nurture our complicated relationship with the earth.


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