Working off the same map

Given its reliance on a sweeping range of location-based data, the Census Bureau — not surprisingly — has become one of the biggest advocates of geographic information systems, using digital maps and a massive spatial database to pinpoint exact population figures and accurately forecast future growth.

Still, the bureau's experience in the most recent census has highlighted many of the frustrations in collecting and using geographic information, including the absence of national data content standards, redundant efforts, the lack of consistent coordination between state and local governments, and the absence of dependable funding. Despite the widespread use of GIS at the local level, for example, many city and county employees must still submit their census information on paper.

"We'd like for it to be somehow easier on localities and on us," said Bob Marx, chief of the Geography Division at Census. "Right now, we're all doing double work. In many cases, the locals have already put the census data into their [GIS], but then because everyone's standards are different, they're faced with the job of copying it over, and then we have to manually enter it into our database. They — and we — would much prefer that they just run us a copy of their electronic file and send it to us."

Help may be on the way. The I-Team Geospatial Information Initiative — a joint project of the Office of Management and Budget, the Federal Geographic Data Committee, the Council for Excellence in Government and others — aims to break down the financial and institutional barriers that block the nationwide integration and dissemination of geographic information. States have a major role to play in the initiative, and 31 have already committed to taking part in the project.

"What we're trying to do is provide a mechanism or a means for local and state, and even private-sector, institutions to provide geographic information using common data content standards and effective and efficient business practices," said Ron Matzner, coordinator of the I-Team Initiative. "The ultimate goal is for everybody to develop spatial data so that geographic information can be integrated and shared in a nationally consistent way."

OMB officials began work on the initiative this spring, and a flurry of activity followed this summer within state and local governments. The GIS community views the initiative, though still in its infancy, as a critical step toward the development of a National Spatial Data Infrastructure. In a 1994 executive order, President Clinton laid out the vision for NSDI and described the technologies, policies and people necessary to permit federal, state and local government agencies — as well as the private, nonprofit and academic communities — to share geospatial data. By sharing such data, individual agencies and organizations could access existing GIS databases and save the expense of creating their own.

The I-Team will tackle various aspects of NSDI, including the formation of data-sharing agreements and the somewhat sticky issue of how to finance such cross-agency ventures.

In recent years, individual state and federal agencies have attempted to develop standards that would allow government entities to more easily share content. But observers say the I-Team Initiative is different and may ultimately succeed because of one critical element: sponsorship by OMB. This executive agency has the power and the credibility needed to focus federal agencies' attention on the initiative and reinforce its importance to the current administration and to the nation as a whole. "It very much fits into our current e-government strategy in that it is citizen-focused," said an OMB official who asked not to be identified. "But it is also cross-agency, such that we're aligning federal, state and local resources and working with our state and local partners to more closely reduce their burdens and simplify the processes they go through to deal with one another and with the federal government."

Making a Business Case

The I-Team Initiative calls for four major actions: planning, integration, standards development and funding.

"Being able to share and integrate geographic information is critical to our being able to solve the increasingly complex social issues facing us in the 21st century, like homeland defense, economic development and disease management," Matzner said. "To begin to do that, we need to be able to gather geographic information in the most effective and efficient way. We don't do that today."

Part of the problem is that for some time different government entities — as well as businesses, universities, utility companies and other organizations — have collected geographic information on an ad hoc basis, causing duplication, waste, inconsistency, incompatibility and, most of all, inefficiency.

To help governments better manage geographic information assets, the I-Team Initiative calls for each state to develop what's known as an I-Plan, a strategic plan that evaluates the status of existing data; identifies the most effective ways to collect, process and use that data; determines how to build a statewide spatial data infrastructure; and sets a figure on how much it will cost. Already, four states have developed I-Plans: Indiana, Maryland, Montana and Utah.

The I-Plan calls for states to assess their data according to seven data framework themes: digital orthoimagery, geodetic control, elevation, hydrography, cadastral data, political boundaries and transportation. Many states have already gone beyond those minimum standards, however. Utah, for example, has 18 layers in its plan, adding demographics, wetlands, geology and wildlife, among other categories. Montana has supplemented its plan with geology, soils, hydrologic units and land cover.

"We're not telling anybody what to do here," Matzner said. "The only requirement we have for someone to call themselves an I-Team is to be inclusive, to make sure all stakeholders are part of the process."

Even without taking another step in the I-Team Initiative, states will benefit from having an I-Plan. "For starters, it basically justifies to policy-makers and budget people what we've been trying to do for a long time," said Dennis Goreham, manager of Utah's Automated Geographic Reference Center. "It also lays out the ground plan on exactly what it is we're trying to do. So it's an internal document for us to follow, but it's also this great piece of work that the external community can use."

Bill Burgess, program manager for the Geographic Information Services Division of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, sees the I-Plan as more of a business plan than a strategic plan.

"Most of us have never presented the business case for geographic information to our executives, and I think the I-Team structure helps us do that," he said. "I think we are probably getting a little more credibility as a result of the plan because it's a different way to approach data production and sell it than we tried in the past."

In Maryland, an I-Team would be especially helpful to the Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership for protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay through land and water management programs, research activities and smart-growth initiatives.

Meanwhile, federal agencies are expected to complete a similar assessment of their geospatial data resources, Matzner said. The Federal Partners Team — which includes representatives from Census, the Bureau of Land Management, the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency — will direct federal agencies to come up with their own needs analyses and efficient business processes, respond to and integrate efforts with I-Teams and explore new approaches to developing standards.

Working Together

Although I-Plans can be considered successful ventures unto themselves, the ultimate success of the I-Team Initiative will depend entirely on intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration.

"The risk that we run is that we end up developing a lot of plans, and the existence of plans doesn't necessarily translate into assurance that this data is going to fit together," said Hank Garie, director of the New Jersey Office of GIS. "So the standards development is key, but it has to take place more quickly than in the past." The key to creating those data content standards, observers say, is to agree on a minimum level of commonality. "They have to be simple," Goreham said. "There are examples of standards out there that are so complex that nobody uses them. But if they are going to be used — especially by people who didn't help create them — they have to be simple and well-documented, almost a cookbook approach."

The most difficult challenge to the intergovernmental effort, however, will probably be figuring out a way to fund NSDI. Right now, the vast majority of GIS efforts are paid for through stovepiped annual appropriations. If geographic information is going to be used effectively in the long term, Matzner said, it must be funded as an intergovernmental capital asset.

"This needs to be funded just like a highway system," he said, "with both federal and state money utilized, but the money needs to be ongoing."

To solve this issue, a Financing Solutions Team — led by Bruce Cahan of I-Team partner Urban Logic Inc. — will investigate alternatives to the existing appropriations structure, suggest new funding mechanisms and create a business case, along with suggested financing options, for the I-Teams and Federal Partners to use in preparing working plans and budget proposals. "Since it's a multilevel strategy, it's got to have multilevel resources devoted to it, and so we've got to find ways of aligning federal investments with state investments and even with private-sector investments," Matzner said. "Getting these various mechanisms to work together is a major challenge."

Looking Forward

The I-Team Initiative began in earnest only this spring, so Matzner admits the effort will take several years to complete.

But given the urgent need for homeland defense in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "I would now think that the process must necessarily be accelerated over initial estimates," he said. "Homeland defense is certainly not the only pressing issue for which integrated GIS is a solution, but I would think that if we continue to be engaged in this struggle — and it looks like we will — then this needs to be done sooner rather than later."

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at hbhayes@cfw.com.

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