Web expands boundaries of GIS

With the Internet, it's possible to expand access to digital maps and images

of the Earth once limited to isolated government geographic information

systems. Online, anyone — from people researching real estate to a telecommunications

company searching for fiber located beneath a city's sidewalks — could tap

into the information.

But interoperability challenges prevent widespread World Wide Web access

to geospatial data.

To tackle this issue and make GIS more useful, an industry group and

a federal organization have launched initiatives that could have a significant

effect on state and local government GIS work.

The OpenGIS Consortium — created in 1994 to work with industry to promote

interoperability — is developing a way for people to access geospatial data

from disparate sources through a Web browser. And the Federal Geographic

Data Committee (FGDC) is developing policies that could give state and local

governments a stronger voice in national decision-making.

The consortium has developed a specification for a GIS Web server interface

that will allow people to look at maps online and overlay maps of the same

region in a single window.

The overlaid maps would appear on a common system of the Earth's coordinates

with a common mileage scale. Without this technology, people have to use

special GIS software or manually combine the map layers to look at map overlays.

Governments have to build base maps or foundations that allow them to add

additional map layers, said Allan Doyle, president of International Interfaces

Inc. and architect of the Web mapping project.

The new technology allows any information systems, as opposed to isolated

GIS systems, to easily incorporate and manipulate geographic information.

State and local governments need the layering ability to compile maps

that include information generated by other agencies, Doyle said.

"It relieves people of the responsibility of maintaining the data they're

not in charge of," he said. "You could take the output of disparate servers

and lay them together on one client. People will be able to spend more resources

worrying about the data they care about." For example, a town in Massachusetts

could maintain GIS data of local roads on its internal systems but access

GIS data from the Web detailing major highways. Data from the two data sources

could be viewed via the Web as one map with multiple layers.

In addition to having access to data layers from federal agencies and

other sources, state and local governments could continue to use GIS products

from different vendors and still be able to tap the power of the Web, said

Carl Reed, who heads GIS business development at Intergraph Corp.

"They don't have to be tied to one GIS vendor anymore," Reed said. "They'll

be able to share data with their neighbors much more effectively and efficiently."

Web mapping is going to be the "wave of the future" for state governments,

said Nancy McCann, special projects administrator for the state engineer's

office in Wyoming. Unless a state has established a GIS software standard,

sharing GIS data is difficult, she said. As a result, agencies are working

on independent projects that are not coordinated on a statewide basis.

"This will help bring together those independent projects to be a statewide

effort," she said. "It's critical to have a standard way to do it. It forces

each state to be organized."

The Web mapping technology will also allow citizens to become more involved

in the political process because they will be able to get their hands on

more GIS data, she said.

"To get better decisions made, you have to engage the citizens," McCann

said. "How you do that is to provide maps from various sources so they can

see things in a different way. When you put that into the hands of the citizen,

they can drive what government does."

Henry Garie, director of New Jersey's office of GIS, said interactive

Web mapping would be vital to GIS' future because it has the potential to

eliminate compatibility issues and allow officials to transparently integrate

various vendors' products.

For example, the majority of New Jersey's 300 agencies use GIS software

from one vendor, but the state's transportation agencies use another vendor's

platform.

"You've got this dilemma: How do you easily take the road data those

agencies are working on and suck it into an application [of another vendor's

platform]?" Garie said.

However, despite the potential advantages of the emerging technology,

Web mapping would not ensure the quality of data, Garie said. If people

go to the Web and find data is missing for particular map layers, they still

won't be able to produce comprehensive maps, he said.

Vendors have begun to add specifications to GIS to allow for Web mapping.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers is piloting the concept in northern

Pennsylvania, using the technology to build environmental maps of the region

by pulling data from sources including NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Setting the Standards

Web mapping may be key for the future of GIS, but related policy issues

need to be hammered out first.

The FGDC, for one, is working to improve cooperation among the federal

government, state and local agencies, and industry. The FGDC is building

on the federal-focused National Spatial Data Infrastructure, which includes

policies, standards and procedures for organizations to cooperatively produce

and share data.

The new GeoData Organizational Alliance Initiative has the same goals,

but brings state and local government representatives into the discussion.

Kathy Covert, FGDC partnership coordinator and project manager for the alliance,

said the alliance wants to take the informal association of individuals

and organizations within the GIS community and turn it into a collective

decision-making body to guide future work on the NSDI.

"What we envision is creating a new, neutral organization where the

federal agency participates as one among many," Covert said. "It's the first

systematic effort to bring all the relevant and effective parties to the

table to really fashion a governance."

This will help meet the demand from state and local governments to be

part of the decision-making on policy at the national level, she said.

"[In the past,] most of the standards had already been through certain

processes before the state and local voices had been heard," she said.

The committee has also conducted a study examining new ways to fund

the NSDI. Bruce Cahan, president of Urban Logic Inc., a nonprofit group

working to improve the information management and infrastructure planning

of governments, wrote the study, called "Financing the NSDI: Aligning Federal

and Non-Federal Investments in Spatial Data, Decision Support and Information

Resources."

The study, released early this year, suggests that the NSDI should be

nationally funded.

Now that GIS data is available on the Internet, the private sector is

using the technology as much as the government. Utilities and telecommunications

entities use spatial data for infrastructure engineering, real estate companies

use it for urban development, and the airline and transportation industries

use it for route and fleet analysis.

Cahan suggested that regional, industry and interest groups form consortia

to pool and align government and private investments in the infrastructure.

In addition, a public/private bank should be formed to underwrite IT investments

in spatial data acquisition and maintenance, decision support applications

and hardware, software and integration services support, he said.

All levels of government could consult with consortia members before

doing work to meet federal mandates so that other entities could tap the

data for their work, Cahan said. This would let state and local governments

finance GIS projects in different ways, "not just the county issuing bonds

to pay for GIS," he said.

"It doesn't suit anyone's needs to feed off the trough of whatever the

county can afford to build," Cahan said. "That cascading of data requirements

[by federal mandates] is an evergreen source of cash flow. You can either

build the data the right way once, or you're going to end up building the

data, many times in your stovepipes."

—Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.

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