Redrawing boundaries

There's a scene in the movie "Contact" in which a shadowy baron reveals to Jodie Foster's character the secret existence of a second, multibillion-dollar machine that will transport her to extraterrestrials living near a faraway star system. The first had just been blown up by a religious fanatic.

"The first rule in government spending," the baron explains, "is why build one when you can have two for twice the price?"

That twisted reasoning worked to get Foster to another universe, but in this universe, most people find the concept far from intelligent. In fact, participants in a nationwide initiative to create and share spatial data across all levels of governments are asking a contrary question: Why build two datasets when you can share one for a lower price?

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) are leading an effort to build framework data through Partnerships with local, state and tribal governments, academia and industry. Framework data is commonly used spatial data, such as that describing roads and waterways, made available for anyone to use.

The data will help build the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), created by a presidential order in 1994 to provide a structure for collecting, sharing and storing geospatial data.

According to the FGDC, some 80 percent of all data used in government and the private sector has a location component. In order for governments to provide a range of services, they must continually acquire and store spatial data — at a significant cost. Instead of having local, state and federal agencies collect the same data independently, the new initiative would gather it once, and share it.

"Is everybody building a separate map of New York City? Is everyone building a separate [geographic information system] for their applications in Chicago? Up until now, sometimes the answer was "Yes,'" said Bruce Cahan, cofounder of Urban Logic Inc., a nonprofit organization working with OMB and FGDC to find new ways of funding spatial data collection and maintenance.

Under the initiative, local implementation teams — I-Teams — made of state, city and county governments, and federal and industry partners, will establish plans for compiling, maintain and finance spatial data in their respective states and regions.

"That's really what the initiative is focused on — people at the state and local level, along with federal people and the private sector, coming together to figure out what they can do and what they need to do, using the resources and assets they have," said John Moeller, FGDC staff director.

The I-Teams effort grew out of a roundtable meeting last July of OMB, FGDC and the former National Partnership for Reinventing Government. More than 110 officials from federal, state and local agencies, vendors, the Senate Appropriations Committee and public-interest organizations attended.

At that meeting, the need for a cross-governmental effort to build framework data for the NSDI became apparent, Moeller said.

According to an FGDC summary of the meeting, building the NSDI can be approached like the building of the interstate highway system: "Like the interstate highways, the NSDI needs standards so everything fits. Like the road system, each layer of government has an appropriate role, as does the private sector. No one agency or level of government can or should build or fund its spatial data and decision support needs alone."

"The hope is that we're all talking about the same basic standards so that ultimately you could take data from all states and put them together and make it fit and make sense," said Hank Garie, director of New Jersey's Office of Geographic Information Systems. "We would build the framework data once for our respective state, use it many times for many different applications, and also have a way to keep it current."

About 25 state I-Teams have joined the effort, including New Jersey, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oregon, as well as New York City. The metropolitan New York I-Team — which so far includes New York City and Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau counties — is collecting data in four broad areas: public safety, transportation, the environment and health. If spatial data collected by those governments can interoperate, they will be better able to address regional problems, said Allan Leidner, the city's geographic information systems director.

"GIS data now needs to be linked at the borders and made interoperable," he said. "We've got to make sure that when we seam things up, they're accurate."

For example, the region could better respond to future outbreaks of the West Nile virus if each jurisdiction maintained information that could be pooled into a single database, Leidner said. Similarly, if local governments all used elevation, coastal, road and other data built to the same standards, response to a hurricane or other major storm would improve, he said. "It's not that we don't have this data, it's just that we're not linked," Leidner said.

When standards are in place, "there will be some explosive savings possible," he said. Federal governments won't have to capture data because local governments will already have captured it. And the feds will trust that state and local governments are getting quality data because they will be following the standards.

"This is brand-new," he said. "I don't think we've ever worked on a regional level like this before, so it's a significant process."

Having teams at the local level develop the framework data makes sense because they're more likely to provide greater detail, Garie said.

"When federal agencies try to do a national dataset, they often don't have the resources to make that applicable to local governments," he said. "The level of accuracy and detail is developed by grassroots agencies, not from the federal government looking down." Leidner said local data was also more accurate and detailed.

Garie compared framework datasets to the foundation of a building. Just as "on top of a foundation you build other things," he said, on top of framework spatial data, you can display more detailed information to obtain a comprehensive picture of patterns.

The FGDC has identified seven framework data layers that it thinks should be shared across government, such as political boundaries and waterways (see box). Garie said the New Jersey I-Team will work on those layers and add some of their own, such as those describing critical facilities such as hospitals and schools. He expects New Jersey to choose between 10 and 15 data layers, and a team will be formed to develop a plan for each.

"Ideally, the team[s] will put in place a strategic plan for the statewide development and maintenance of these data layers," Garie said.

A separate Financing Solutions Team will help the I-Teams secure funding for the effort and explore new ways to finance the maintenance of data that has already been collected. The idea is to look at spatial data as an infrastructure investment — a capital asset, like a highway — and not simply something to be funded from one year to the next through appropriations, Cahan said.

Cahan wrote a report describing alternative funding methods based on 21 examples of financial intermediaries that the government relies on, such as regional airport authorities, community development corporations and Fannie Mae. Those models might be applied to the collection and maintenance of spatial data, he said.

Data guidelines

The Federal Geographic Data Committee has identified seven types of data to be used when building framework spatial datasets to be shared across government and industry. Local implementation teams are encouraged to follow these data guidelines as they help build the National Spatial Data Infrastructure:

* Digital orthoimagery — Digitized aerial photographs with distortions removed.

* Elevation and bathymetry — Topography information relating to land and the depths of bodies of water.

* Geodetic control — Process of finding exact points on the earth's surface through surveying techniques.

* Government units — Political boundaries, such as city and county borders.

* Transportation — Streets, highways, rail lines.

* Cadastral — Land parcel ownership and boundaries.

* Hydrography — Lakes, streams and other bodies of water, and where they flow.

Source: Federal Geographic Data Committee


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