Interior e-gov tack irks GIS vendors

Under pressure to get the Geospatial One-Stop portal up and running, the Interior Department has created a stir by pitting one of the leading geographic information system (GIS) vendors against the work of an industry consortium.

The Web-based portal, one of 24 governmentwide initiatives led by the Office of Management and Budget, will house geospatial information and services supplied by federal, state and local agencies. Instead of having to search multiple sites and deal with data stored in different formats, users will turn to Geospatial One-Stop for all their GIS needs.

In December 2002, Interior partnered with Open GIS Consortium (OGC) Inc., an international group of 254 companies, government agencies and universities, giving it $450,000 to develop a prototype and underlying architecture.

The consortium's main thrust, which made it a natural for the project, is the formation of open specifications that enable interoperability.

But after forging an agreement, some Interior officials had second thoughts. Besides being one of the Bush administration's highly touted e-government initiatives, Geospatial One-Stop is eagerly anticipated by the first responder community as a much-needed resource for maps and other geographic data.

Later, at a meeting in February, the Geospatial One-Stop board of directors voted to strike a second agreement with ESRI, an OGC member. The company, which had pitched the department an unsolicited proposal, received $375,000 for a Web portal prototype.

Now, in an ironic twist, the portal — whose aim is interconnectivity — has divided the GIS community.

"There's quite a lot of confusion about the process of Geospatial One-Stop, and the OMB could help by adding public clarity to the situation," said Tim Milovich, chief executive officer of Questerra LLC, an OGC member.

Consortium members believed their prototype would serve as the basis for a future procurement, not as a procurement itself.

"The lack of clarity in the situation as developed creates a perception that OGC and its member team are competing with another member," said Jeff Burnett, the consortium's vice president of operations and finance. "That's simply not in the interest of any members. If this had been set up as a competition for the prototype, then OGC would not have bid.

"Its members would have been the entities to bid," he continued. "Basically, we're not the vendor."

For its part, Interior maintains that heightened expectations and increased urgency forced it to take a second look.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency "and folks in homeland security and the emergency response community are very interested in getting access to geospatial information as soon as possible," said Scott Cameron, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for performance and management. "We need to get something out there in the near term that the community can use."

As a result, Interior moved from seeking a working prototype to a production prototype, and that prompted it to consider a commercial-off-the-shelf solution.

The demands on the department reflect Geospatial One-Stop's importance to first responders. Firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians rely on geospatial information to mitigate and respond to disasters, including natural catastrophes and terrorism. Right now, much of the data is difficult to access.

"Homeland security is very concerned about first responders," said Carol Kelly, vice president of strategy for META Group Inc. "This is serious stuff. We're trying to get the gaps closed as quickly as we can."

OGC saw the prototype as the opposite of a competition, as a chance to cooperate across companies.

"There is a willingness among the vendor community to make this work as a team," said George Moon, chief technology officer at MapInfo Corp., an OGC member.

But business is business and ESRI spotted an opportunity, observers say.

"ESRI has an excellent reputation and a lot of people consider them the top in their field," said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.

The company is behind the Bureau of Land Management's GeoCommunicator portal, experience that factored into Interior's decision to give it a go, according to Cameron.

"We've done lots of work doing similar kinds of things," said Pete Bottenberg, a senior consultant at ESRI, which is working on the prototype.

Also potentially acting in the com-pany's favor is its selection by Interior last December as its GIS standard.

To some OGC members, ESRI appears to have stepped outside the circle of collaboration, ruffling feathers along the way.

"It should be beyond any single corporate ego," Moon said.

Others blame OMB and Interior for failing to make their intentions clear.

"The consortium at the top was an anomaly. A little competition is a good thing," Allen said. It would have been better, however, to take a dual approach from the start, he said. "I can certainly understand that the timing would raise some questions."

OMB officials could not be reached for comment.

Timing is the issue for Interior officials as well. They want to have a fully functioning portal available by the end of May and worry that OGC might not be ready.

"The OGC process is going to involve a wider variety of players," Cameron said. "The more people that are involved in the development of a project, the greater the likelihood it may take you longer to get there."

Not so, according to the consortium. "OGC is confident that its member team will deliver its prototype and reference architecture on time," Burnett said, adding that "because the portal is being implemented at the national level by the federal government, OGC believes it should represent the diversity of technology, services and data that exist and are being developed around the country."

Both OGC and ESRI are planning prototypes that use open standards, officials said.

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Future directions

The Geospatial One-Stop initiative is intended to improve the use of geographic-oriented data at all government levels and at universities.

The project has four primary goals:

* Improve the sharing of geospatial information across federal, state and local agencies.

* Improve planning for future investments in geospatial data.

* Support cross-government partnerships on geospatial projects.

* Foster the development of geospatial-related standards.

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