GIS maps out approach for 'democratization' of government data

Geographic data that has long been in the purview of the federal government is slowly finding its way into the public domain as agencies and vendors take advantage of the Internet CD-ROMs and other pervasive technologies.

Observers in the geographic information systems (GIS) industry peg the federal government as the largest holder of information that has some geographic component whether it be address information or references to states or congressional districts.

Agencies have used GIS software programs to convert that raw data into digitized maps this process allows employees to extract potentially valuable information such as looking at which ZIP code in the nation has the highest crime rate or how a new grant program will affect low-cost housing in various states.

"The data itself is not really the interesting part it's seeing it on a map " said Jack Dangermond president of mapping vendor Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.

The GIS potential in the federal government is huge. Cambridge Mass.-based Daratech Inc. estimated the GIS software industry in 1996 to be a $591 million industry having grown almost 8 percent over the year before. Meanwhile federal expenditures represented 19 percent of 1996 GIS sales.

In the coming years that same capability may be readily available to a whole new set of users as ESRI and other vendors enhance their software for delivery over the Internet or on CD-ROM.

Additionally vendors are pooling their resources to develop standards to ensure interoperability between their different products.

Democratizing GIS

GIS industry players say the federal government holds a lot of geographic- or geospatial-oriented information that is not getting rolled into GIS programs but instead remains as data in charts or reports. But that stands to change with momentum building in the GIS arena and with the public starting to demand more electronic geographic information.

"For the information society GIS will be very important " Dangermond said. "It's not going to be numbers and tables it's going to be visualization" that gives geographic data its impact.

The goal is not to provide the public with answers to their questions but to give them the tools to get the answers themselves. Some GIS observers call it the "democratization of GIS."

Putting live maps online or on CD-ROMs seems to be one way of getting that data out. "It's cheaper to put it online than it is to print it and send it out " said Lance McKee a spokesman for the Open GIS Consortium Inc. an industry group working toward the interoperability of GIS technology.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is taking such an approach with its Community 2020 planning software which allows users to create their own maps to see how a proposed housing development will fit into an area demographically or economically.

The software released this summer with help from Caliper Corp. Newton Mass. includes a rich library of geographic data that can be overlayed on maps in graphic form rather than being used as bland tables and numbers.

"It shows you something in one visual [image] " rather than an assortment of charts said Pamela Glekas HUD's marketing applications branch chief.

In developing the product HUD weighed heavily what its users - which include citizens community activists and local and elected officials - would like to see in a GIS product according to Glekas. "We worked very hard to address the issues that were sort of concerns to the people who were out there using it " she said. "It's not designed for the high-end GIS user. It's designed for the person who has never had exposure to GIS before."

HUD plans to keep the product current by delivering upgrades to the software over the Internet the agency said.

HUD is not alone in its use of CD-ROMs as a way of getting geographic data to citizens. The Environmental Protection Agency produces a CD-ROM product known as LandView that lets users - from real estate developers and house hunters to public officials and activists - construct their own maps of environmental hazard sites overlaying data such as roads rivers and political boundaries.

Citizens who call in with questions on the environmental status of a certain site may have an incorrect address and will be unable to get the information they need said Steve Simanonok a coordinator with the EPA's Brownfields grant program who works with local governments to inventory and monitor their environmental hazards. However online electronic maps would allow a citizen to see his neighborhood and its "envirohazards"regardless of whether he knew the address.

"By getting it out there in the public domain you improve the chance that the response will be even remotely related to their question " Simanonok said.

In a similar vein HUD has developed a World Wide Web page called the Envirofacts Warehouse. Like the LandView CD-ROM product this site allows the public to select their neighborhoods and see on an electronic map what potential environmental hazards there are around them - from gas stations to chemical plants to Superfund sites.

Migrating to the Internet

Although CD-ROM has proven to be a good medium many people expect the Internet to become a primary vehicle for delivering information. In one respect making the information available via the Internet can help cut out the middleman Simanonok said.

But getting all the millions of bytes of geographic information off paper or out of stovepiped computers and onto the Internet may prove to be a challenge.

"Ultimately we would like to get there the limitations are technology and funding " said John Kelmelis chief scientist for geographic research at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Kelmelis envisions GIS as a tool that can be used in real time via the Internet at town meetings where sponsors of proposed developments for example can tap into federal Web pages to show what would happen to their developments if a nearby river floods and then what would happen if a dike were built. "You have the owners the community - all the stakeholders - can see in real time how the decisions will affect the land " he said.

While funding remains an issue "technology seems to be going away as a limitation " Kelmelis said. Increased bandwidth and improved GIS technology that is becoming more available for desktop systems are testaments to that fading limitation Kelmelis and GIS industry observers said.

Vendors have already begun the process of retooling their software for Internet or intranet applications. Last November ESRI announced the development of the ArcView Internet Map Server which allows users to publish geospatial data on the Internet. Earlier this year Intergraph Corp. introduced Version 1.0 of its GeoMedia Web Map software which improves the ability of standard Web browsers to access and interact with live GIS information.

MapInfo Corp. has Web-enabled a number of different products including MapMarker which "geocodes" address information by adding longitude and latitude coordinates to each address record in a database and ProServer a server-based suite of mapping applications.

Internet technology "has the potential to drive this democratization " said Rich Michael a federal marketing director at Intergraph. "There's really no reason why people can't get this information."

Meanwhile database vendors such as Oracle Corp. Informix Software Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are integrating GIS capabilities into their standard products making it possible for a broader audience to tap into geospatial information. Oracle and Informix have developed "universal databases" for managing different kinds of data and GIS is a prime target for both companies.

Future Issues

Additionally industry-driven software interoperability and standardization efforts by the Open GIS Consortium are helping create a common technical framework for GIS vendors industry observers said.

The consortium last month unveiled standards for software interoperability in processing simple geometric features. The standard is one of several that the consortium is working on and the group is setting standards at a faster pace than the standardization process of many industry groups some software industry observers said.

McKee said he expects the GIS interoperability that is emerging coupled with an eventual migration of GIS to the Internet to help make the federal government more efficient.

"At all levels of government agencies spend a lot of resources to collect data and a lot of times it's redundant " he said.

But interoperability and the easy sharing of information over the Internet can eliminate the need for one agency to collect the same data that another agency already has even if the agencies are not using software from the same vendor McKee said.

"The glue between applications and database providers is much stronger because of [an emerging common vocabulary] " said Michael Fisher director of the spatial business unit for Oracle's server technology division. "What had been a terribly fragmented market for so many years is finally gelling."

Players in the GIS arena also realize the technology itself needs to improve. Geographic data electronic maps and images still encompass an enormous number of bits and bytes and for any one agency to make them all accessible via the Internet will be challenging.

So in an attempt to pave the way for data-rich files USGS just this spring announced a cooperative research and development agreement with Microsoft Corp. in which the company will endeavor to put 2 terabytes of digital geographic photos on the Web.

Hedy Rossmeissl USGS' senior program adviser for data and information delivery said the images - aerial photos - will be accessed by Web surfers who can use an online map of the United States to "drill down" to see the nooks and crannies of the country.The endeavor also could kick start an interest in geographic data and images via the Web she said. "It's an opportunity for this data to get highlighted in a much larger community."

Industry will continue to be the bridge for the agencies that want to share information with each other and with the public. "In order for this stuff to really reach the masses we need to have software and applications " ESRI's Dangermond said. He emphasized that people need to think of GIS as communications - a means of getting across geospatial information.

Still attitudes have to change at agencies according to Dangermond. "The GIS people in the agencies have to say 'Part of our job is to open up our organization and make it accessible to the public ' " he said.

Dangermond is not alone in that sentiment. "The one thing that government can do is make this data available they're not in the application arena for the most part " said Sharon Tan an industry analyst specializing in GIS at Dataquest Inc. a San Jose Calif.-based research firm.

* * * * *

At a Glance

Status: GIS vendors are turning their attention to information delivery with an emphasis on getting information to a very broad user base.

ssues: The Internet is emerging as the vehicle of choice with industry delivering Web-enabled versions of GIS software.

Outlook: Excellent. Not only is technology improving but vendors are attempting to develop standards for interoperability among GIS packages.

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