Spatial data plan gets Interior boost

In an apparent about-face on a proposal to revamp the way federal, state and local governments collect and share geographic data, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt last week told a House subcommittee that it should consider key points of the plan.

The proposal, issued by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) last year, calls for the creation of a nonprofit National Spatial Data Council (NSDC) to coordinate activities among federal, state and local 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.

At issue is the use of enormous amounts of geographic data that could be used more effectively, for example, to plan for natural disasters, examine the effects of pollution, help community leaders develop solutions for social problems in neighborhoods and target government services where they are needed. Each year, agencies at all levels of government collect millions of bits of geographic information that relate specific points on the Earth to such variables as temperature, demographics, vegetation coverage and land development activities. On electronic maps, the data can be layered to show how a proposed real estate development, for example, would affect the breeding habitat of a particular bird species.

But much of the same geographic information stored in databases nationwide is redundant, and much of the information cannot be shared among different agencies because standards for describing, indexing and sharing information do not exist.

The NSDC would help develop solutions for standards, but Babbitt had opposed the creation of the group. Interior Department officials "are concerned about the prospect of legislation for...creation of a National Spatial Data Council," Babbitt wrote in a letter sent in June 1998 to the NAPA co-director for the project.Babbitt also wrote that Interior "is concerned about the recommendations in the report [that] propose legislation to reorganize federal programs and create a new bureau."

But in testimony delivered last week before the House Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee, Babbitt said Congress should investigate creating a sturdier "framework" for the sharing of geographic information.

"I do urge you to entertain some direction for the federal partners and how they go about gathering information," Babbitt said. He added that Congress may want to put some "starch" into the relationship among industry as well as state, local and federal agencies that produce geographic information. He also said Congress should investigate creating a federally chartered NSDC that could operate as a private nonprofit for coordinating geographic data activities.

Babbitt said a maturation of the geographic information industry means that now may be an appropriate time to consider such proposals. Also, a source in Interior said Babbitt only recently finished reading the NAPA report, which may explain his softened stance on its proposals.

Babbitt did caution against mandating technical standards for how information could be shared, suggesting that creators and users of geographic data should be allowed to work together to develop a consensus.

Other witnesses at the hearing said governments and industry should work more closely and in more of an equal partnership to solve the mapping problems. So far among federal agencies, coordination of geographic information activities and attempts to develop a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), which would make information sharing easier, have been headed by the Federal Geographic Data Committee, with input from state and local groups and industry.

Other witnesses at last week's hearing called for creating "true partnerships" for coordinating collection and sharing of geographic information. Thomas Sweet Jr., a representative of the Pennsylvania GIS Consortium, suggested Congress consider budget mechanisms that will ensure that federal agencies do a better job of coordinating geographic information activities.

Larry Ayers, executive vice president of software company Intergraph Corp. and a member of the NAPA panel that wrote the report, said Congress should pass a law requiring the development of the NSDI, which would put more heat on agencies to complete the project. Currently, federal agencies developing the NSDI are working under a presidential directive.

Members of the subcommittee indicated that Congress should become more involved in setting parameters to foster the sharing of geographic information. "I believe it is imperative that Congress become more engaged in efforts to promote best practices and provide the necessary resources to implement this technology in a manner that will yield the greatest benefits for society," said Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.).

The subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), said he and Kanjorski plan to collaborate on a legislative proposal in the wake of the hearing.

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