Government maps path to geospatial data

Shift in technology transforming spatial data into decision-making tools for agencies.

For Karen Siderelis, a specialist in geospatial information, the opportunities and obstacles government agencies face in making graphical sense of their data can at times resemble the color-coded highs and lows on the maps that come out of her department.

That would be the Interior Department, where Siderelis is the geospatial information officer, responsible for coordinating geospatial information activities across the department’s nine bureaus. Siderelis, not surprisingly, also plays a leading role in the Federal Geographic Data Committee, which is trying to help federal agencies become, as she describes it, more “spatially enabled.”

The question, she said, is, “How do we bring potential users — those we don’t think of as conventional users of geospatial data such as program or acquisition officers — and help them make better decisions,” using tools that help visualize data geographically.

That is one of several challenges she and her federal peers raised last week at a forum on emerging technologies and the evolution of geospatial applications, held in Washington, D.C., by the American Council for Technology and the Industry Advisory Council.

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Beneath that is a broader challenge: How to capitalize on the massive volumes of geospatial data that already exists within various agencies and better coordinate the technology platforms on which they reside.

“We have been very focused on standards, which is important -- metadata, Web services and other standards -- but less focused on how we leverage our technology investment,” said Jerry Johnston, GIO for the Environmental Protection Agency. “Groups have their own infrastructures and technologies. We really need cloud computing,” he said, saying it provides a unique “opportunity to build a shared infrastructure.”

But even if the technology infrastructure were in place tomorrow, more needs to be done to standardize the properties of the data and make them discoverable by those who need them across the Web.

That became clear to Siderelis during a project meeting last month. is the public portal to federal data sets launched by the White House last year. A substantial portion of the data now available on the site comes from existing geographic data catalogues. Yet, when the topic turned to the quality of meta data, Siderlelis was surprised when it became evident not everyone was speaking the same language. 

“One of the guys on the team thought we were talking about who created the content, not about the metadata that is discoverable [by computers] across the Web,” and where much of the power of geospatial data lies, she said.

Resolving those issues is taking on increasing importance, geospatial experts say, as more and more people see the potential for place-based data becoming a game-changing technology in the way that government, and businesses, communicate internally and to the public.

“The map is really central to what people see in,” Johnston said, referring to another Web site the Obama administration developed  that renders information into interactive maps, charts and graphs. “This is going to change the way government does business.”

Johnston envisions a time in the near future when “all of our grants, funding programs and budget formulation will be expressed in map form.”

That horizon line is approaching fast for Siderelis, who is looking to support Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s agenda using geospatial technology, including ways to enable the budget process for the fiscal 2012 budget cycle, she said.

But its also being enabled by advances in available software tools and services, said Mohamad Thahir, chief architect for Oracle Spatial Technologies. “Tools are shifting from pure geo-tool to a location-embedded data type,” he said. “So we will be moving to a platform technology, like a Java, or XML technology, rather than [a platform] for geospatial specialists.”

That in turn is giving rise to a new factor that is redefining the world of geospatial information: the emergence of volunteer geospatial information contributors who are serving as human sensors, uploading all kinds of new digital spatial information to Web-based databases and maps -- from pothole locations to disaster reports .

The result is a “shifting of economics in managing data,” Thahir said. “People outside are adding data, rather than internal workers.”

That is also leading to a huge data explosion, he said, presenting new demands not only on geospatial information system specialists, but now GIS workers as well. “What is happening is not a hardware issue or software issue, but a combination of the two,” he said.

One example of that, said Sheila Steffenson, director of federal science business for software-maker ESRI, will be the need to “make sure our technology can go out on mobile devices, using citizens as a sensor, and be able to pull up much more micro-level [types] of data, versus the macro level that we’ve lived with, and be able to port this into devices such as an iPhone,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge ahead for GIS specialists, according to Steffenson, is finding ways to make sure people can trust the data going out of government Web sites. Accountability tools will become an important added dimension of the future of geospatial information, she said.


About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.


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