Mapping a game plan

Feds join states, locals to share spatial data

Collect it once, and do it in a way that enables others to use it. That's the concept behind a nation-wide, intergovernmental initiative designed to save money and make spatial data more easily shared.

The Office of Management and Budget and the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) are leading an effort to build framework data — commonly used spatial data made available for anyone to use — through partnerships with federal, local, state and tribal governments, academia and industry. The data will help build the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), formed by a 1994 presidential order to provide a structure for the collecting, sharing and storing of geospatial data.

According to the FGDC, some 80 percent of all data used in government and the private sector has a locational component, and in order for governments to provide their range of services, they must continually acquire and store spatial data — at a significant cost. Instead of local, state and federal agencies collecting the same data independently, the new initiative would have data gathered once and then shared.

"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, co-founder of Urban Logic Inc., a nonprofit organization working to find new ways of funding spatial data collection and maintenance.

Under the initiative, Implementation Teams, or "I-Teams," composed of city, state and county governments, and federal and industry partners, will establish plans for how to compile and maintain spatial data in their respective regions.

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

About 25 state I-Teams have signed on, Cahan said, as well as one encompassing the New York City metropolitan area.

The New York metropolitan-area I-Team, which so far includes New York City and Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau counties, is initially focusing on collecting data in four areas: public safety, transportation, the environment and health. If spatial data collected by those governments can interoperate, they then will be better able to address regional problems, said Alan Leidner, geographic information systems director for New York City.

For example, if local governments in the region all used elevation, coastal, road and other data built to the same standards, response to a hurricane would improve, he said.

"It's not that we don't have this data, it's just that we're not linked," Leidner said. "A lot of the work will be joining our datasets, integrating them."

Having local teams develop framework data makes sense because they're more likely to provide greater detail, said Hank Garie, director of New Jersey's Office of Geographic Information Systems.

"When federal agencies try to do a national dataset, they often don't have the resources to make that applicable to local governments," Garie said. "The level of accuracy and detail is developed by grass-roots agencies, not from the federal government looking down."

"I think each local government is a building block, and to the extent we can develop standards, the blocks become walls, and pretty soon we've built the edifice of the NSDI," Leidner said.

A Financing Solutions Team will play a major role in helping the I-Teams secure funding for the effort and will explore new ways to finance the maintenance of data that's already been collected. The idea is to look at spatial data as an infrastructure investment and not simply something to be funded year-to-year through appropriations, Cahan said.

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