Web expands boundaries of GIS
- By Heather Harreld
- Jun 05, 2000
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
"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
The study, released early this year, suggests that the NSDI should be
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.