- By Greg Langlois
- Mar 25, 2001
Years ago, you'd most likely come across the National Atlas of the United States only at your local library. You wouldn't want to buy it yourself because it cost around $100. Plus, it weighed 12 pounds, contained a dizzying 400 pages and was based on data from the 1960s. And it was geared toward the U.S. Geological Survey's traditional user base of scientists and government decision-makers, not the average citizen.
Today, the modern National Atlas is fully digitized and ready to provide data on demand. It's Web-accessible (www.nationalatlas.gov) and interactive, enabling visitors to create their own maps by choosing from among 225 data layers to track crime patterns, congressional districts, population distribution, precipitation, dam locations, zebra mussel infiltration, nuclear sites and even the West Nile virus.
USGS' new atlas, in its fourth year, is just one prominent example of a federal agency's attempt to use geographic information systems (GIS) to package information the public wants in a format that's easy to understand. Though the technology is not new agencies have used GIS applications for years to map forests and plan the decennial census, for example its use is more prevalent today as agencies find new ways to compile and package existing data.
It's what Doug Nebert, Clearinghouse coordinator at the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), a group composed of federal agencies that work to build standards for geospatial data, calls "g-gov" geospatially enabled electronic government. "It's just a flavor of what everyone's been talking about in e-government," he said. "It recognizes that place is an important part of government services." Why GIS?
Information by itself a ZIP code, for example doesn't help prospective home buyers choose a house. But when a ZIP code is combined with addresses for the nearest school, crime statistics or pollution data, suddenly that information has practical value.
"When you see things spatially, you gain power in decision-making," said Mark Reichardt, director of marketing and public-sector programs for the OpenGIS Consortium Inc. (OGC), a GIS standards group. A law enforcement officer wading through a series of crime reports might not be able to detect a discernible pattern, but if crimes are plotted on a map, he or she is in a better position to plan a response, he said.
"You can spend your life with textual report data," Reichardt said. "It becomes much more simple to understand and reason with spatial orientation."
During last year's wildfire season, for example, USGS tapped a GIS application that used satellite imagery to update the extent of wildfire penetration every hour, said Hedy Rossmeissl, senior program adviser at USGS. That did more than merely plot the fires' progress; it gave firefighters projections for where the fires would go next and how populated those areas were information valuable for their firefighting plans. The USGS made another version available via the Internet to serve as a resource for those potentially affected by the fires.
"People are just so much more familiar with looking at things in a spatial perspective," Rossmeissl said. "GIS affords this real ability to be interactive."
A History of Helping Agencies
Ten years ago, the use of GIS at agencies was limited mostly to those collecting mapping data USGS, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and various defense mapping agencies, said Louis Hecht, vice president of business development at OGC. "Now if you look at what's happening, all agencies have an interest in mapping to do a better job" in delivering services, he said.
Now, the use of GIS is fairly pervasive throughout federal agencies, said Theron Anders, vice president of Intergraph Corp.'s mapping and GIS solutions division. And GIS isn't just for mapping anymore.
For example, the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service uses digital photography from USGS to provide farmers with crop, soil and water flow information more quickly and to help them minimize erosion, said Christine Clark, geodata coordinator at NRCS. "We have the ability to digest much more information than we could before," she said. Determining farm acreages, formerly a manual process, takes just seconds using GIS software, she said.
And the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Fire Data Center uses GIS as a part of its National Fire Reporting System, which collects information on 40 percent to 60 percent of all fires that occur each year, said Jim Heeschen, fire project specialist at FEMA's U.S. Fire Administration. GIS enables the agency to provide communities with a detailed look at what and where types of fires occur, he said for instance, identifying areas where arson is the most frequent threat.
Data Delivery on Demand
As access to the Web increases, agencies are taking their data collection and GIS capabilities online, giving people the ability to interact with their government in a whole new way.
For agencies, this means that even users with average computer skills can use Web-based GIS mapping tools. For example, 95 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency's employees fall into the average skills category, estimated David Wolf, Internet geoservices manager for the EPA's Office of Environmental Information.
The Internet as a mapping tool likely will increase the public's demand for convenient dissemination of agency data, Rossmeissl said. "The Internet has just changed expectations exponentially," she said.
Some agencies, such as the EPA, are positioned to meet those expectations. In 1997, the EPA began developing a Web-based environmental map tool, EnviroMapper, and launched it in April 1998. It enables users to create maps by overlaying pollution data from the EPA's Envirofacts spatially enabled database, such as Superfund sites and toxic air release locations, with reference points, such as roads, schools and hospitals, Wolf said.
The agency is testing a more powerful application it calls Window to My Environment (see box below), using updated Internet-mapping technology from Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI). In addition to providing access to the EPA's data, Window to My Environment will provide access to environmental data from state and local governments, universities and other organizations. "We're hoping to really begin delivering some very sophisticated analytical tools to everybody's desktops to employ in their decision-making processes," Wolf said. "This is the way we're going to get geospatial processes to the rank-and-file employees," as well as to the public.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development's eMaps application provides similar data. Through a partnership with the EPA and the Census Bureau, eMaps enables users to zoom in on their communities to find HUD properties and their relationship to environmental hazards. The application was developed quickly last year as "a very basic first step" in offering community leaders a tool to help them make sound housing decisions, said David Nystrom, senior information technology adviser at HUD.
"HUD's mission in many ways is to empower local people and get money out there to help them," he said. "But an important part of what HUD's all about is also to provide technology and data to help them as well." Although this new push to gather, package and deliver data to the public is good, many GIS proponents say such single agency initiatives are redundant and should be replaced with government-wide enterprises.
For example, although the new National Atlas features data from 20 federal agencies, its 225 data layers are "snapshots" of the originals held by the individual agencies, said Jay Donnelly, National Atlas program manager. This means that USGS has to exert extra effort to maintain additional data and that the data it uses risks becoming outdated.
Nystrom has a plan to avoid outdated data. He'd like to merge geospatial datasets from other federal agencies, such as FEMA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as from local communities themselves. The goal is to bring down barriers between different levels of government and "to empower people to use federal and local data to make smart decisions," he said. Plans to do just that are in the works. Nystrom, who joined HUD over a year ago, is leading an effort to create one of the first enterprisewide GIS solutions in the federal government.
HUD, like others, grew in a stovepiped fashion, with individual divisions creating data that can't be easily shared within the agency, let alone with other federal agencies. An enterprise solution would enable spatial data to be stored in a central repository that could be accessed by everyone at the agency.
At HUD, that likely means replacing its Community 2020 product, a CD-ROM-based software product containing HUD datasets that is mailed to local officials. A new, enterprisewide Web-based system would tap into current, centrally compiled data from across HUD and would replace the CDs that are dated almost as soon as they are shipped.
"Individually, systems work great," Nystrom said. "When you try to combine them into a visual tool, you have to make fixes to make them run together. Internally, we've got a big job, and we're making slow progress."
A similar solution is being considered at FEMA. Ed Corvi, acting GIS and intranet development team leader for FEMA, said the agency has formed a GIS working group to study how an enterprise solution can fit within the agency's IT architecture. The effort is designed to "pull all our different requirements into one view" so that its spatial data is compatible, he said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi Valley Division is building a GIS solution as well, said Nancy Blyler, physical scientist and geospatial coordinator. The division's six districts used to collect flood control and navigation data independently, creating headaches for customers dealing with different data formats as they moved from district to district down the river. An enterprise solution would reduce duplication and provide more accurate data, Blyler said. "We're really trying to make it much more cohesive."
A broader approach, however, is needed before users can access data across agencies combining the EPA's EnviroMapper with crime patterns from the Justice Department and housing data from HUD, for example and get the information they need, said Todd Rogers, federal marketing manager for ESRI.
"The key here is that each agency would be able to maintain their data on their own servers, but give others access," Rogers said. "You'd no longer run into the problem of having several different versions of your data with different agencies."
OGC's Hecht has an ambitious standard for data delivery. "I should be able to query any dataset I want to and merge it and bring my desired solution to my desktop and do it seamlessly and transparently in 20 seconds," he said.
The OGC has built and tested specifications to make this happen, Reichardt said. The USGS is modifying many of its servers to make them OGC-conformant, for example, and the National Atlas itself will soon be OGC-conformant. The eventual goal is to have the government insist that the procurement of spatial products conforms to OGC standards, he said.
All the data that's being added to the National Atlas is also being made to fit with FGDC metadata standards for describing spatial data as well, Donnelly said. This way, professional users easily can find data relevant to them.
Tapping into humans' innate sense of spatial referencing makes sense if agencies want to connect with taxpayers, FEMA's Heeschen said.
"When presenting information to audiences, maps are unbeatable in terms of communicating an idea," he said. "Everyone can relate to a map."