Geospatial portal still elusive

The Office of Management and Budget's efforts to create a portal for geographic and spatial information is moving ahead only slowly, hampered by far-flung data and a lack of standards, said Mark Forman, OMB administrator of the office of electronic government and information technology.

Forman, speaking to the House Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census at an oversight hearing on Geospatial One-Stop, one of the 24 e-government initiatives, said the project is needed as a means to make the data readily available.

"During the early stages of developing our e-government strategy, we set up focus groups with state and local officials. Repeatedly, state and local representatives told us that geospatial information supported their most critical functions," Forman said. "However, we were told that finding and obtaining federal geospatial data was overly burdensome. State and local [geographic information system] users could spend months doing Internet searches, making phone calls and writing letters to federal agencies in search of essential geospatial data."

Geospatial data refers to maps, aerial or satellite photographs and other visual representations of terrain, along with data that is associated with it, such as elevations above sea level, the locations of subway tunnels, mine shafts or any other feature for which information is available.

A geographic information system, or GIS, can assemble composite maps on demand from multiple sources.

Someone at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, could start with a basic map of a northwestern forest engulfed in a fire. With a few mouse clicks, the GIS user could overlay additional maps showing the logging roads through the forest, the terrain types in the area, the elevation of various points, water sources and all the nearby communities, and then e-mail the composites to fire departments about to begin fighting the blaze.

The goal of Geospatial One-Stop is to create a Web portal that will allow users to access such data from multiple organizations, Forman said. The project is daunting, though, because there is no standard for such data. Some maps are precise, others approximate. Scales vary.

OMB is working to create standards for 12 critical layers of information, Forman said. It has now finished seven "framework" standards called for in the National Spatial Data Infrastructure project launched through a 1994 executive order, along with other standards that it will submit to the American National Standards Institute for approval by September.

The project drew some fire earlier this year when the Interior Department, OMB's key agency partner, awarded a $375,000 contract to GIS vendor ESRI to develop a prototype. OMB had already given $450,000 to the Open GIS Consortium Inc. (OGC) — of which ESRI is a member — for the same work. OGC leaders at the time said it made it appear the coalition was competing against a member organization, even though ESRI's offer to Interior had been unsolicited.

Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), the subcommittee's chairman, agreed that the lack of standards is the most difficult problem for OMB and its partner agencies to solve. "In most cases, information is collected in different formats and standards for one specific mission, with little attention to subsequent intergovernmental data sharing," he said. "This results in wasteful redundancies and a reduced ability to perform critical intergovernmental functions."

The same tunnel-vision focus leads agencies to buy information from private-sector providers without first determining if it's already available in the government, Forman added. "There's an awful lot of data we buy from the private sector," he said. "The question is, do we need to buy it so many times?"

Linda Koontz, director of information management issues at the General Accounting Office, echoed those concerns and said OMB's effort is not "significantly new." The lack of standards that complicates the current effort has complicated similar efforts in past years, she said.

GAO is concerned that agencies might not readily accept OMB's framework standards, she said. Standards take time to develop and implement, and Geospatial One-Stop is limited to short-term goals.

"What we would like to see is a longer-term strategy that tells us how we're going to get to where we want to go," she said.

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