Do we Need a Spatial Data Superagency?

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in a new study has recommended that the federal government create a new organization to push development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), which is a kind of national motherboard for public- and private-sector geographic data systems. But while the idea has some merit, it is an argument for putting the cart before the horse.

The study, commissioned to explore ways the federal government could improve the coordination of geographic information systems (GIS) data, recommended Congress set up a private, nonprofit organization, called the National Spatial Data Council, to better foster "full participation [in developing the NSDI] by all the major parties and interests." It also recommended that the existing Federal Geospatial Data Committee concentrate on coordinating GIS functions within the federal government.

As the study shows, success in the creation of the NSDI will require full cooperation by federal agencies as well as by state and local government agencies and by private-sector players. Implicit in the recommendation is that the FGDC, the government panel currently charged with national NSDI coordination, is not doing enough to foster such cooperation among all parties to the project.

The real question is whether a new bureaucracy needs to be created to further the interests of the NSDI. As our article on Page 26 points out, the current FGDC leadership is aware of and supports the goal of pulling state and local agencies into the NSDI planning process. In addition to giving state and local officials a seat at the NSDI table, the FGDC has taken concrete steps, including exploring opportunities to channel federal spatial data funds toward state and local GIS data-collection projects.

More importantly, a new agency-or even streamlining the current bureaucracy-will do little to further the NSDI agenda if state and local agencies with geographic data interests are not willing to make building their GIS infrastructures a priority. While most state and local governments have been extremely active in GIS development, the gains have largely been made by individuals or small groups who were excited about the technology's potential. But until state and local leaders and their legislatures commit to backing GIS development-and IT investments in general-these may remain largely entrepreneurial efforts.

Otherwise, the goals embraced by NAPA-including providing a forum to develop and maintain the NSDI, serving as a catalyst for implementation and building a clearinghouse for geographic data-seem to be within the scope of the agencies already involved in the effort. While the goals of NAPA's study are laudable, the risk in forming a new agency is that the gains already achieved-and the networks already formed-will get sacrificed.

Do we need a new NSDI superagency? I'd say wait until the problem demands a solution that isn't already being put into effect.

Paul McCloskey



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