Geographic council backed

While federal agencies still take issue with a report calling for a central council to coordinate the federal, state and local collection of geographic data, some states are beginning to support the idea.

North Carolina recently threw its weight behind the proposed National Spatial Data Council, a body that state officials say is needed to help coordinate the collection of geographic information. Such information includes immense numbers of data points that link positions on the Earth to environmental and economic factors, such as vegetation coverage and development.

In an Aug. 2 letter to the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), which recommended the formation of the NSDC, Jane Smith Patterson, North Carolina's senior adviser for science and technology, wrote, "We are particularly pleased that the report places such strong emphasis on the benefits, opportunities and collaborative goals of the [National Spatial Data Infrastructure] and recognizes the need for a National Spatial Data Council."

In a report released in January, the NAPA recommended forming the NSDC to streamline geographic data activities at the federal level and to coordinate the collection and dissemination of geographic information among state, local and federal governments as well as the private sector. NAPA recommended the formation of the council to help stem the problem of agencies at all levels of government collecting the same geographic information and the inaccessibility of much of that data because of incompatibility and the lack of standards.

But federal agencies, including the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, have criticized the council. "The Forest Service does not support the creation of a new bureaucracy, the NSDC, to address the geospatial needs of the country," Forest Service officials wrote in their response to the NAPA report.

Recently, federal objections to the report reached higher levels. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wrote in a June letter to the NAPA co-director for the project that Interior Department officials "are concerned about the prospect of legislation for...creation of a National Spatial Data Council."

At the federal level, coordination of geographic information data activities and attempts to develop an NSDI to make sharing geographic information easier have been shepherded by the Federal Geographic Data Committee. But some state officials argue that FGDC does not have the power or equal representation from state and local governments needed to make the NSDI a reality.

"They don't have the money or the mandate or the manpower," said Susan Carson Lambert, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Geographic Information Systems. "Nobody can really say... 'Play together' because [the Office of Management and Budget] is not involved. Somebody needs to be given the hammer and the money and the funding and the staff."

But some state officials say the FGDC is not to be blamed for the difficulty it has had in making intergovernmental sharing of geographic information seamless.

"That's no criticism of the FGDC or Secretary Babbitt or any of the others we've been working with," said Karen Siderelis, director of the Center for Geographic Information and Analysis for North Carolina, a state whose top technology adviser this month sent NAPA a letter supporting a new NSDC. "It's a structural problem, from my point of view."

But among federal agencies, resistance to handing off coordination responsibility for geographic information to a nonprofit group such as the NSDC likely will persist, said one federal observer.

"The resistance...is sort of a last gasp of the old 'I'm from the federal government; I'm here to help you' mission," the source said. "The feds are not going to be as big a player in [the collection of geographic information] as they used to be."

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