Federal Program Designed to 'Nudge' GIS Development

Perhaps nowhere in the United States is there more of a need for consistent land mapping than in Alaska, which is twice the size of Texas and is inhabited by an average of one person per square mile. To fortify geographic information system development in the state, Alaska's Natural Resources Department is drawing funds from a federal grant program established to promote a national GIS data infrastructure.

The Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) is made up of representatives from 15 federal agencies. For years, it has worked toward the creation of a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The group's mission is to orchestrate geographic data that is being rapidly produced by all levels of government and by a growing number of private companies.

FGDC last month began accepting applications for its three partnership funding programs. Individual FGDC funding levels are low in comparison to those available through other federal grant programs, but the awards have attracted a loyal following. They also have proved to be an incentive to bolster communication among NSDI players -- one of the more crucial NSDI building blocks. The awards also work to boost ongoing GIS initiatives by providing help precisely where and when it is most needed.

"FGDC has provided us with just enough of a nudge to advance our projects," said Richard McMahon, land records manager at the Natural Resources Department. "The first project we received funding for went toward the development of unique GIS software. Using FGDC funds, we were able to rewrite the software and share it with the entire Alaska GIS community." The software provides users with a consistent way to describe land parcels.

In Vermont, FGDC funds have helped state officials comply with mandates to disseminate spatial data, said Bruce Wescott, executive director for the state's Center for Geographic Information Inc., a state-supported nonprofit group. "This federal funding program has dovetailed with what I was supposed to be doing anyway," he said.

Spurring existing efforts is precisely the point of the FGDC programs because the committee wants to discourage any sort of financial dependency, said Barbara Poore, FGDC secretariat. "The awards are purposely small to leverage what recipients are already doing and to bump them up to the next level," she said. Poore also credits the funding programs with crystallizing the committee's mission. "Initially, what FGDC was trying to do was misunderstood as a top-down federal initiative."

But NSDI development is proving more and more to be a bottom-up effort, due in large part to the grants, Alaska's McMahon said. "From my perspective, the program is important because it helps to foster a more open community, and that openness encourages the sharing of information. It also fosters the communication necessary to make information more consistent and less difficult to share."

GIS Collaboration

"The program has been a nice way for us to communicate with a lot of the geographic data producers in the state," said Zsolt Nagy, coordination program manager at the North Carolina Office of State Planning's Center for Geographic Information and Analysis. "Ten to 15 years ago we were the only GIS shop in North Carolina. Now 60 out of 100 North Carolina counties are operating GIS shops and producing street- and land-parcel data."

Such collaboration takes place in part because FGDC makes applicants work hard to prove they will include an array of spatial data users in spending federal dollars. "Applicants have to partner with somebody, and the more partners, the better," said Bruce McKenzie, program official for the NSDI cooperative agreements program. "Some projects have the minimum of two agencies. But some have 13 or 14 agencies and are multisector by including participation at the city and county level."

Along with proving collaboration in order to land the FGDC grants, however, applicants should have a sense of commitment to the projects they are proposing, Vermont's Wescott said. "The systems and the data will have to be maintained," he said. "My advice to the top policy managers in an agency is to get a statement of policy. In the long run, everyone will be better off."

Jennifer Jones is a staff writer for civic.com. She can be reached at jjones@fcw.com.

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