GIS Power Politics
- By Jennifer Jones
- Mar 15, 1998
City and county governments have spent years building powerful repositories of geospatial data necessary to deliver a majority of public services-everything from building roads to dispatching ambulances. But local geographic information systems players until recently have been shut out of the strategic-and largely federal-effort to stitch together the nation's spatial data holdings into a national GIS infrastructure.
Indeed, state and local government representatives only last year were welcomed into the Federal Geographic Data Committee, which was established by President Clinton in 1994 to develop a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). "For a long time, we've been saying to FGDC, 'Hey, gang, we like what you're doing. But you forgot about us,' " said Win Lyday, director of information technology for the National Association of Counties (NACo), one of several interest groups that have worked to make local government more visible in setting the nation's GIS agenda.
But after years of frustration, a balance of interests is being forged among federal and local geospatial players. Sources point to two reasons for the harmony: efforts by FGDC's current leadership to collaborate actively with local governments in NSDI planning and the realization by most stakeholders that existing civic databases will be important cornerstones for a national GIS infrastructure.
"We are working hard to collectively find ways to make the NSDI national," said John Moeller, FGDC's staff director, who has long fielded criticism that his organization has left state and local interests out of NSDI planning. Early in his tenure, Moeller vowed to change that. Since last spring, he has helped create a network of relationships with local organizations, including NACo, the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC)-a group of GIS officials from 45 states-and most recently the National League of Cities (NLC). What's more, 18 states are now acting as FGDC cooperating organizations.
"John has opened doors for us in many ways," said NACo's Lyday, adding that a large number of county programs have geospatial components that were once undervalued by FGDC. The same goes for city-held data, said Jamie Woodwell, the NLC's manager of research. "It's great that the feds have invited us to participate because there is so much information on the federal level and on the local level, and both...are needed to build the NSDI."
Yet despite all the collegial team-building, some argue that a more formal organizational structure needs to be put in place to cement the intergovernmental partnerships required to build the NSDI. In a just-issued report, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) has recommended that Congress relegate FGDC to a strictly federal role in building the NSDI and that a separate, nonprofit private entity, the National Spatial Data Council (NSDC), be created to "bring a broader technology perspective to the FGDC."
"This new organization's charter and activities would complement those of the FGDC, which would concentrate much more on coordinating [GIS] functions and activities inside the federal government," said the report, which was commissioned in 1996 by the House Appropriations Committee to identify options for consolidating federal mapping functions governmentwide. The council would provide a national forum for developing the NSDI, serve as a catalyst to create a user-friendly clearinghouse for geographic information and, over time, assume responsibilities from the FGDC.
The report noted that while FGDC has been "instrumental in much progress over the past few years," it recommends increased state and local government participation in the FGDC, stronger involvement by the private sector and better links to federal agencies with major geographic information-related programs, including NASA and the Defense Department.
To Moeller, NAPA's recommendations are less a rebuke than an acknowledgment that a broad-based approach will be necessary to meet the goals of the NSDI. "This is not a new point," he said. "I'd like to build on the intent of the NAPA report, but as for the best way to do that, we haven't really figured that out yet. It is a really big job to get common understanding and at the same time get information disseminated to all levels of government, academia and the private sector."
Still, advocates for creating a national organization argue that the complex challenge of building the NSDI requires more than just the best intentions of a group of dedicated individuals. "This is a very real issue," said Hank Garie, director of GIS programs at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and last year's NSGIC president. "There is a need to have the NSDI not only be viewed as a national infrastructure but as an effort backed by a national organization as well.
"Since Moeller has been there, we've all had a wonderful relationship, but that could change if the organization itself were to change," Garie added. "Most of what is going on in the FGDC is voluntary. These people have real jobs to do, and FGDC is only one part of those jobs.... There is very little in the way of full human resources devoted wholly to the NSDI, and it is a monstrous challenge to pull all of this together."
Others counsel that a more moderate approach may be necessary in order to conserve the accomplishments of the FGDC and prevent throwing the baby out with the bathwater. "I haven't heard from any majority of the players any sense of urgency to change the medium," Lyday said. "The problem is, if you start talking about making the current arrangement more formal, what is the mechanism that you use? You could add a level of uncertainty to the field, and I'm not sure that is the best route to take."
Actually, the idea to create a formal intergovernmental NSDI organization is not new; the idea is a "natural outgrowth of earlier conversations" between FGDC and NSGIC, according to Garie, who noted that NSGIC was created partly out of frustration at the federal government's neglect of state and local interests. "Several years back, NSGIC had proposed a partnership agreement that, in essence, would broaden the participation to all relevant stakeholders in an NSDI federation," he said.
Although the FGDC never acted on the overture, it has done more than give lip service to the idea of including state and local groups in NSDI planning. "At the first meeting FGDC asked us to participate in last April, we were not only involved, but they asked for our help in determining the agenda for this meeting," Lyday said. "It was an absolutely amazing offer."
In fact, recommendations offered by local government officials-bold ideas to put states at the forefront of NSDI planning-dominated the agenda of FGDC's 1997 spring meeting. Karen Siderelis, of the North Carolina
Geographic Information Coordination Council, presented the ideas at that meeting and suggested that "federal agencies adopt policies to recognize spatial data as foundational to support state as well as [federal] agency missions," according to FGDC minutes. FGDC agreed to scout out a "short list" of federal programs with funds that could be channeled to states for spatial data collection. Many local government representatives were impressed by the idea, interpreting it as a sign that FGDC was willing to "put its money where its mouth is."
To many local government players, such actions represent FGDC's good faith in bringing local government into the NSDI policy mainstream. "Yes, we believe there needs to be a national development of the NSDI," Lyday said. "But you know, given what has happened over the last year, we think the foundation is there. We are sitting at the table. We are working together step by step in starting the development of a national approach."