Geography no longer an afterthought

Geospatial information officers make their mark at federal agencies

More federal agencies are creating new positions to oversee geospatial data and make it a part of their information technology operations.

"All along we've had maps of populations, we've had maps of soils, we've had maps of the highway systems," said Karen Siderelis, chief information officer and geospatial information officer at the U.S. Geological Survey.

What is new, however, is the growing realization that an executive must be in charge of an agency's geospatial information systems to make sure geography isn't an afterthought when databases are being built.

For example, consider a proposed chemical factory. What do you want to know about it? How close is the proposed site to existing houses? Should it be built elsewhere for national security reasons? What are the soil conditions and prevailing wind patterns?

All of that information is essential to know and easy to find when government officials can see an online map with data from every relevant source aggregated onto it.

"This is how people think and solve problems," said Brenda Smith, the Environmental Protection Agency's first geospatial information officer. She joined the agency in April 2004.

Federal efforts to consolidate geographic information through projects such as Geospatial One-Stop, an e-government intitiative for single-point access to map-

related data, are not new. Starting in the 1990s, there have been leaps in geographic data processing with the development of better technology.

But now, "there's this growing recognition that geographic information is one of the major assets of an organization," Siderelis said. A commonly cited statistic is that up to 80 percent of data has a spatial element.

"In a lot of our databases, there is locational information," Smith said. Spatial information may now be a secondary or tertiary aspect of data, but in many cases, data without location is meaningless.

"What we're trying to do is get people's attention to focus on that, improve the quality of that locational information so that when we do share that and merge it with other data sources, they're all falling on the right place on the map," she said.

The ubiquity of geospatial information is what led Kim Nelson, the EPA's CIO, to create Smith's position at the agency.

Were one office to be responsible for geospatial data, she said, "then it's easy for people to point their finger and say, 'Oh, that's the responsibility of the person down the hall, not mine. Don't worry about that.' "

Smith's role "is somewhat akin to a national security adviser," Nelson said. A geospatial information officer isn't a go-to person for geospatial data — that person is more of a locational data enabler.

Geospatial information officers elevate the importance of geospatial data collection in disparate parts of an organization to a higher level and help the CIO channel "the way we invest in the technology in a little more corporate or enterprise approach," Siderelis said.

"It's not so much managing the technology as technology enabling us to do things in the way of analyzing information that we couldn't have done without the technology," she added.

The idea of appointing a geospatial information officer is catching on, Nelson said. "I don't know that you'll see each and every agency have one, but I think you will see more in the next couple of years," she said.

More than a map

Proponents of geospatial information are working to update the federal enterprise architecture to include locational data.

U.S. Geological Survey officials are taking the lead on developing what might become the third federal architecture overlay. Overlays are policy documents that affect all five of the architecture's reference models.

The CIO Council's Federal Architecture and Infrastructure Committee is working with USGS officials to shape the final proposal.

"As we drill down and actually get into the nitty-gritty of the issues, we'll decide what's the appropriate format or structure of the final work product," said Kim Nelson, co-chairwoman of the committee and the Environmental Protection Agency's chief information officer.

One option is making geospatial data part of the architecture's data reference model, Nelson added.

— David Perera

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