Mapping standards for cooperation

When John Moeller talks about geographic information systems (GIS), he sounds more like a poet or novelist than a scientist.

"When you get down to it, the thing that links all of us together and determines who we are is geography," Moeller said. "That's what holds communities together: the geographic area and the landscape where you live. And that's what makes sharing geographic information so important."

Since November 1995, Moeller has worked to make it possible for governments, universities and the private sector to share geographical information. As chief of the Geographic Data Coordination Program at the Interior Department, Moeller runs the day-to-day operations of the Federal Geographic Data Committee. Formed in 1990 and chaired by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the FGDC's 15 members set standards and rules for the exchange of geographic information so that federal, state and local governments do not duplicate map-making efforts.

An executive order issued by President Clinton in 1994 also charged the FGDC with overseeing the establishment of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), envisioned as a network of geographic information databases linked on the Internet.

Though still in its infancy, the NSDI already offers a few links to databases operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, state and local governments and others through the FGDC's World Wide Web home page at http://www.fgdc.gov. Moeller envisions a mature NSDI linking hundreds of geographic databases operated by all levels of government, academia and the private sector. Such links would provide policy-makers with vital information needed to make a wide range of decisions, according to Moeller.

"Geographic information forms the basis for virtually all your decision-making processes," he said, "whether you're talking about environmental resource allocation decisions or if you're talking about the location of businesses or if you're talking about community housing patterns, transportation systems, environmental polices; all those relate to geography, to the landscape."

Moeller developed his passion for the land while growing up in rural northern New Jersey and, later, hiking through the woods in New Hampshire as an undergraduate forestry student at that state's university in the 1960s.

"I've always been interested in the outdoors and looking at maps to help explain land forms, where and why different kinds of vegetation, lakes and streams existed," said Moeller, who finds little time now to hike and camp. "I was more interested in it from a natural resources perspective, knowing where different things were in relationship to each other."

After graduation, Moeller served as a lieutenant with the Army Corps of Engineers in Germany. In 1969, he returned stateside and earned a master's degree in natural resource administration at Syracuse University.

His first job after that was with Interior's Bureau of Land Management, working in Phoenix and Albuquerque, N.M. In 1974, Moeller moved to head up BLM's Redding, Calif., office, where he began to consider how computers could make geographic analysis easier.

"At that time, the best planning system we had was one where you laid one overlay on top of another," he said. "You'd have one on soils, another on vegetation, another on open space, timber production and others. The only problem was, when you were through stacking 30, 40 or 50 of these things together, it turned out kind of fuzzy. It was really tough to understand the scientific issues sometimes."

GIS programs were not available then, but by the time Moeller moved to Washington to head up some BLM mapping programs, GIS technology had started to flourish. The primary obstacle to creating a large network of GIS databases was not lack of technology but the need for standards so data could be exchanged and used easily. The FGDC set out to change that.

To make the NSDI a reality, the FGDC has set down a number of standards and processes. In 1994, the FGDC set standards for metadata, which are brief descriptors of information within a database. During the next six to 12 months, the FGDC will be fine-tuning the standards to make them easier to understand.

The committee also has set up a number of clearinghouse nodes, which are databases that can be searched either by keyword or by geographic area. And the FGDC is engaged in establishing "thematic standards," which classify data by category, such as vegetation, soils or land ownership and boundaries.

Moeller pointed out that the FGDC is not dictating what organizations can set up a clearinghouse on the NSDI and does not act as a standards czar. The whole exercise is a partnership, "which has been pretty successful so far," he said.

"We're not a central database that everyone sends their data to," Moeller said. "I don't think that's the way people will feel comfortable about using data. It's really going to be a series of linked, distributed clearinghouse nodes and databases that would be tied together through electronic media."

Development of the NSDI in this way, Moeller said, will lead to another societal benefit derived by geography. "Allowing state and local governments to determine what is available empowers people," Moeller said. "They have the tools to find out more about themselves and how the land influences their lives and how to change it. That's the real power of geography."

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