More find their way to mapping software

Geographic information systems have gained ground as a niche technology in some government agencies, with the expectation that GIS and geospatial data analysis would eventually become mainstream agency tools. Until last year, however, that outcome was slow to materialize.

As with the use of other new technologies, last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed many attitudes about GIS. Since then, the ability to quickly locate facilities and other resources on a map, and to relate that information to other kinds of data, was an obvious need.

"It galvanized the need for geospatial data to be integrated" with other agency data, said Barbara Ryan, associate director for geography at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

That realization has put more urgency into advancing several large-scale cross-agency GIS programs. One of them is the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), a system that the government and the private and nonprofit sectors will be able to use to share spatial data. Another is the Geospatial Information One-Stop, a presidential initiative to provide fast and low-cost access to geospatial data for government operations.

USGS has its own program, the National Map ( that will provide geographic-based information to the public. USGS officials are trying to get at least a core set of standards in place by the end of the year that will provide a way of feeding data into the National Map, Ryan said.

"Once agencies decide what the return on investment is [to use GIS] for their own business processes, this will all make it easier for them to plug into the national infrastructure," said Michael Domaratz, a cartographer in USGS' geography division. "They won't have to keep reinventing the wheel."

For example, USGS has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to show how water data from the National Map can be linked to the EPA's business data to better illustrate the condition of water supplies around the country and to help the EPA with internal applications such as granting permits.

The Internet also is proving a boon for GIS because it gives users access to geospatial data with nothing more sophisticated than a desktop browser. Only a few years ago, GIS required expensive, high-powered workstations, proprietary tools and interfaces, and specialists with an extensive understanding of particular systems' strengths and weaknesses.

"The technology to support very widespread access to, and use of, geospatial data is becoming pervasive, including the use of handheld computers," said Jack Dangermond, founder and president of GIS vendor ESRI. "And we are developing products that will also allow inexperienced users to apply geospatial data to what they do."

At the Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station, a small group of people still does the "real" mapmaking, said Keith Reynolds, a research forester at the station who develops decision support applications for landscape analysis.

However, a broader group of users now use geospatial data at the research station, he said. Their knowledge of GIS "spans an enormous range."

"There are midlevel folks like me, who build extensions [to the GIS] for such things as landscape analysis, and there are others who are doing nothing more than simply pulling the maps up from the browser," Reynolds said. "If they have access to the map layers, it's not that difficult for them to associate their own data with map features."

Reynolds sees a point in the not-too-distant future when users like him will use object-based software components as building blocks to build systems using geospatial data.

"The standards work that is going on now will allow for a much simpler integration of one application with another," he said. "That's been a very significant trend over the past few years."

But this doesn't mean the path ahead won't have bumps. David Sonnen, senior consultant for spatial data management at IDC, said the current experience of users with a GIS is based on products that are heavily focused on geospatial technologies. As you move the application into other areas, the trick will be in integrating geospatial information with other kinds of business data, "and that's not a trivial thing," he said.

"It's a matter of how geospatial data, which are inherently location-based, are organized," he said. "If other kinds of data have the same kinds of location-based elements, such as addresses, then you can relatively easily integrate the two. But that generally isn't the case."

One of the big problems is the "semantic issue," Sonnen said. Even with one-dimensional data, differences in how similar elements in separate databases are described can cause major headaches when you try to integrate the data. Add the complexities of a spatial database, where the semantic differences are profound, and integration becomes even more difficult.

"It's no surprise that integrating data has become an industry to itself," he said.

It can be a problem even between different GIS databases. Jeff Hayenga, mapping services manager for Fluor Hanford Inc., knows firsthand about the integration issues. His firm is overseeing the cleanup of the Energy Department's Hanford nuclear power plant site in southeastern Washington. Part of his job involves upgrading the GIS at the site, currently split between an Autodesk Inc. database and an ESRI database.

Hanford is the one of the biggest toxic cleanup efforts in the world, and the systems are used to manage everything from locating contamination sites and cleanup equipment to overseeing office spaces in the 300 or so buildings on the site.

"The integration of ESRI tools and data with those from Autodesk will be a challenge," Hayenga said. "In a perfect world, I would have just a single Oracle [Corp.] database with a standard approach to what attributes are applied to the data. Then I'd allow users to get to that database from whichever vendor's application they wanted to, but that kind of integration is not there yet."

Hayenga said he is now trying to sell the idea of using the mapping technology to new groups of users at Hanford, and that highlights another problem. Many people are used to handling data in particular ways — as drawings, for example, or as presented in the tables and columns associated with spreadsheets — and find it hard to see the relevance of spatial technologies to what they do.

Advocates still have a lot of educating to do, USGS' Ryan said. The perception of GIS and geospatial data as an area of specialization that is off-limits to government agencies is still a prevalent one.

"It is an impediment and a challenge that has to be overcome," she said.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.


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