Society supports electronic mapping system

Another large electronic mapping association has thrown its support behind creating a special organization to manage the creation of a system in which federal, state and local governments can more easily share electronic geographic data.

The American Society for Photogrammetry & Remote Sensing (ASPRS) - which includes about 7,000 members in the fields of imagery and geographic information - last month endorsed a 1998 report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) that calls for creation of a nonprofit National Spatial Data Council to coordinate activities among governments. The report also calls for the creation of a federal "Geographic Data Service" that would consolidate many federal geographic information functions and serve as a provider of basic mapping data.

The ASPRS endorsement of the report, however, sidesteps the issue of creating a new federal agency. "Frankly, it's the responsibility of the federal government itself to organize itself to do the best job," said James Plasker, executive director of ASPRS.

But ASPRS agreed with the report's recommendation to create a new organization that would heavily involve industry as well as all levels of government and would serve as the architect of a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). A Federal Geographic Data Committee dominated by federal officials now oversees development of the infrastructure.

Agencies at all levels of government annually collect millions of bits of geographic information concerning data such as points on the Earth, temperatures, vegetation coverage and development activities. But some agencies collect the same information that another agency already is collecting, and agencies often have difficulty sharing their data. Having an NSDI would help eliminate the redundancy and make it easier to share geographic data.

"We stress our favorable reaction to a forum, such as a National Spatial Data Council, for bringing together all stakeholders of the NSDI in an environment where no single sector is perceived as having control," ASPRS' recent policy states.

North Carolina and Minnesota also have submitted favorable comments on the report. The National Association of Counties and the National States Geographic Information Council also are close to endorsing the plan, said Bruce McDowell, senior research associate at NAPA.

But the federal government has approached the report with caution. "The Department of the Interior is concerned about the recommendations in the report which propose legislation to reorganize federal programs and create a new bureau called the Geographic Data Service," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wrote in a letter to NAPA last year. "Likewise, we are concerned about the prospects of legislation for the NSDI and the creation of a National Spatial Data Council. The department is opposed to the formation of a Geographic Data Service. We do not believe centralization of geographic data activities in one organizational unit is wise given the importance of geographic information to so many federal agencies."

Progress on making the NAPA report a reality is moving slower than proponents had hoped. "I just don't see a whole lot happening," McDowell said. "I think it's a little disappointing that it's taken so long to see action."

Still, the plan is not dead and continues to build awareness of geographic-data issues, McDowell said. "Pecking away at these...ways of making information available and consistent is the biggest thing going for it," he said.

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