Is a national GIS on the map?

The concept of a national GIS has been floating around in various forms for perhaps 15 years, and technology has now advanced to the point where a national GIS is possible. But a few significant hurdles remain.

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 (www.gis.com/gisnation/), 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 (www.statestat.maryland.gov), 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 (www.greenprint.maryland.gov), 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, www.windpoweringamerica.gov.

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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.