GIS goes vertical, with integration across state, local, federal lines

GIS applications and data are increasingly being linked thanks to informal information-sharing efforts

The power of geographic information systems is obvious. Just compare a long table of crime statistics to an interactive map that graphically displays crime patterns, neatly color-coded according to the type or time of the crimes.

The advantages of mapped data haven’t been lost on government agencies at the local, state and federal levels, which have developed GIS capabilities for a vast array of uses. For example, San Francisco's Bureau of Urban Forestry has developed a Web application for tracking the planting of new trees. Many states and counties employ GIS applications to monitor traffic flow and dispatch repair and maintenance personnel. And first responders at all levels of government are using GIS applications to help them respond more quickly and effectively.

However, as powerful as they are, most GIS applications developed during the past decade were created in isolation from one another. Because developers created the applications with different programming tools and the applications tap different geospatial engines and databases, it has often been difficult or impossible for one agency to access data collected by another agency. For example, federal emergency responders might not be able to access a city's GIS data on locations of fire hydrants or sites that contain hazardous materials.

However, that situation is changing quickly.

GIS applications and the data they deliver are increasingly being linked thanks to informal information-sharing efforts at local and state agencies and more formal, federally funded programs.

"The whole essence here is to take interoperability to a very different level," said David Boyd, director of the Command, Control and Interoperability Division at the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate. The goal is "the interoperability of all of the communications mechanisms, whether it is voice, digital or what, so that you can share the information you have to allow emergency managers to make the right kinds of decisions quickly in order to try to save lives and protect property."

Regional innovators

One of the most visible and farthest reaching state GIS efforts is Virtual Alabama.

Launched in November 2007 by the Alabama Department of Homeland Security — using seed money from the federal DHS — the project uses Google Earth as its visualization engine and delivers data and query tools to more than 1,200 state and local officials, such as county sheriffs, assessors, firefighters and health care providers.

Virtual Alabama delivers an array of data, such as geocoded imagery of properties statewide and the locations of gas stations, power lines, schools and other points of interest. The system even handles video feeds from highways and public facilities. In a major storm, agencies can monitor traffic flow on evacuation routes, search for open shelters, evaluate property and infrastructure damage, and locate stranded survivors.

Virtual Alabama might be unique in its breadth, but it isn't the only state effort.

Some states have been quick to see the advantages of working together. Earlier this year, representatives of seven southern states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — met in Mobile, Ala., specifically to search for ways to better integrate their GIS efforts.

“We agreed that each state — particularly in this Gulf Coast, hurricane-prone belt — needs to develop a common operating platform that works for each state,” said Jim Walker, director of Alabama’s DHS “If we have a hurricane, we may request assistance for mutual aid from our surrounding states to come over and help us out. By the same token, we will send mutual aid teams from Alabama to assist our neighbors along the coast.”

Walker said the state officials agreed to form two working groups: one focused on technologies and one focused on operations. “The operations folks are geared toward how we get this done, politically, operationally,” he said. “If we're going to share information, what information do we share? If I give the state information, what can they do with it?”

The technologies working group focuses on how to integrate data when different states use different geospatial applications.

The Gulf Coast states aren't alone in trying to integrate their GIS applications. Bruce Godfrey, project director of Inside Idaho, a state-sponsored Web site that provides information to government agencies and the public, said Idaho is increasingly working with neighboring Washington and Oregon. He said that because many of the topics being studied — such as climate, aquifers and rivers — cross state boundaries, "the data has to be assembled from the two different states."

In addition to informal integration efforts with neighboring states, Inside Idaho has also received a grant from the interagency Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) to further integrate the state’s GIS program with federal programs.

Another FGDC grant recipient is the Missouri Spatial Data Information Service (MSDIS), a state agency located at the Geographic Resources Center at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Mark Duewell, senior GIS specialist at MSDIS, said the project is collecting data on structures in the state, including a building's owner, the building type, point of contact, phone numbers, the fire department district, and the police department district. For Tier 1 structures, such as schools and other public buildings, the project is also recording the shape of the building.

Duewell also cited the MidAmerica GIS Consortium, an organization of GIS professionals, as a nongovernment partner that has been helpful in encouraging the integration of local, state, and federal GIS efforts. "What it fosters is work between the regional states so that we don't build the same wheel twice," Duewell said. "They're trying to help each other with things like clearinghouses, emergency response and everything across the geospatial spectrum."

Federal integrators

As state and local projects have developed across jurisdictional boundaries, federal agencies have also taken a leading role, particularly since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The realization that geospatial data could be a powerful piece of the federal infrastructure was formalized April 11, 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12906, which called for the creation of a National Spatial Data Infrastructure.

FGDC is part of NSDI and coordinates many of the federal geospatial activities, including a portion of the aid to state programs. This year, FGDC awarded $75,000 in grants to the the DuPage County, Illinois, Department of Information Technology GIS Division and Indiana Geographic Information Council to support efforts to further integrate state geospatial data with federal programs.

The largest efforts to integrate GIS data are coming from two federal agencies: the U.S. Geological Survey and DHS.

USGS, which has long been the lead agency in mapping the country, moved the effort into the digital world in 2001 with the launch of the National Map program, a project to integrate local and state mapping efforts.

When the program started, "many levels of government, state governments, county governments were actually doing very high quality and very accurate, very high resolution mapping for their own needs," said Mark DeMulder, chief of the National Map program. The problem was that the maps weren't integrated. "What you find is that a Fairfax County, [Va.], is doing a great job of mapping Fairfax County, and Loudon County, [Va.], may be doing a great job of mapping, too. But at the edges, they may not join. And they may have different standards for how they [classify] fire roads and what constitutes a stream. Some national program that pulls together all of this information in a consistent way that makes it available for national, regional and other applications is necessary."

States are required to contribute some data to the National Map, such as water quality information that the Environmental Protection Agency uses for the National Hydrography Dataset. However, USGS also encourages broader state cooperation through stewardship programs that train personnel at state agencies and give them tools with which to update the databases.

In some cases, USGS also provides financial incentives. "Every year, we solicit proposals from state governments and other levels of governments for cooperative mapping activities, and we allocate the funds that we have to the best of those projects," DeMulder said. "It's generally in the category of seed money."

DHS also has become a major player in national GIS efforts, primarily because of its concern for security efforts and emergency response. Grants from the department have funded many high-profile state GIS efforts, including Virtual Alabama. Alabama DHS Director Walker said the federal DHS — and specifically the Command, Control and Interoperability Division’s Boyd — was the driving force behind the meeting of Gulf Coast states in Mobile earlier this year.

Boyd said DHS plans to build on the efforts in the Gulf Coast states toward a Virtual USA.

"Our goal in Virtual USA is to get away from the way we had developed discrete applications, discrete solutions," he said. "These often by themselves became stovepipes. They became part of the problem. Now we want to talk about how do we integrate all of these things and how do we make sure all of these things can communicate with each other."

Hurdles to clear

There are a number of obstacles to building a National Map and Virtual USA, though few of them are technological, experts say.

Indeed, state and federal officials say the single most important step is ensuring the active participation of local and regional agencies.

"It is nearly always the case that the data that is maintained on a daily basis at the local level is more accurate and can be more timely if it is fed into the right system and maintained across the Web," said Duewell, Missouri’s senior GIS specialist. He cited the case of a phantom church in Missouri's dataset. "It is in the federal datasets. It is in the state datasets. But it has been gone for 13 years. It is a parking lot now."

Boyd agreed with the need for local engagement. "The real first responders are at the local level, so whatever you do has to support what they do," he said.

Meanwhile, what it takes to ensure participation might vary from one region to another.

For Virtual Alabama, Walker realized it was the county sheriffs who ran the show. So he showed them how the system could help them manage crime data and respond to emergencies. He offered them free access as long as Virtual Alabama got their counties’ data.

In Missouri, working with counties wasn't appropriate because the state has too many of them, Duewell said. "Because we have 115 counties, it is a little easier to work with regional planning commissions," he said.

"The initial hurdle was a sense of mistrust," he said. "Mistrust seems to have been created in the past by federal and state governments asking for local data and them not receiving anything in return." Duewell's team found that offering free GIS training was an effective incentive.

At every level of government, Boyd said, "what we find is that the most difficult nut to crack is governance. Governance implicates the two hardest issues — that is, who is in charge and who pays."

"One of the keys to making this work is the communities have to be comfortable that they can protect their own resources, their own assets," he said. "The states separately want to be able to control access to this information. And there are, of course, fundamental privacy issues that have to be addressed to make sure that we always comply with the laws.”

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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