Agencies think big picture

Sharing cross-agency geographic data promises big benefits -- and challenges

No one doubts that geographic information system (GIS) technology is vital to homeland security. The question is how to develop the right technology and culture so that all levels of government can share the data in those systems.

The ability of GIS technology to provide detailed, multilayered, visual data of both man-made and natural features at specific locations is an indispensable resource for people responding to an emergency. Proof of that came Sept. 11 when New York City was faced with chaos on many levels.

A citywide GIS provided maps and data that enabled New York officials to safeguard and then begin restoring the city's infrastructure. Critically, GIS also allowed officials to publish information about what the city was doing in a way easily understood by both the public and the media.

The trick lies in figuring out how to provide that kind of capability for other cities, municipalities and states around the country. The key, according to the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), an interagency body responsible for coordinating government geospatial data activities, is providing timely information that can be easily accessed and shared across federal, state and local boundaries.

"Without the real-time ability to quickly visualize activity patterns, map locations and understand the multilayered geospatial context of emergency situations, homeland security will not be achieved," FGDC members wrote in a recent position paper.

A number of efforts are under way to create an interoperable network of GIS data providers and users. The federal government has two initiatives aimed at consolidating GIS information, while private companies are

organizing an effort to set standards at the technical level.

Those efforts might give the impression that there's consensus on what is needed to make GIS technology work for homeland security, but the reality is sharply different. Industry and government officials, particularly those who have to deal with these issues on a daily basis, warn that very little about GIS and homeland security has been decided.

"Homeland security [GIS] initiatives are still in their infancy, and it still has to be worked out what they mean to people," said David Holmes, director of worldwide strategies at Intergraph Corp. "To us, it means an assured flow of information from local to state to federal government. Though commercial providers of vector and imagery data will have a place in this, obviously most of the data will come from the local government level since this is usually the most accurate and most up-to-date."

Who's Doing What

FGDC is overseeing construction of a National Spatial Data Infrastructure. The goal of this decade-long project is to provide the kind of crosscutting mechanisms — combining data and technology, and business relationships and processes — that organizations of all types will need to access if they are to collaborate.

When applied to homeland security, the result should be a national framework of data that adheres to certain common data content standards and is supported by interoperable technologies.

A much more recent program, the Geospatial Information One Stop service, began late last year as one of President Bush's initiatives to speed the development of e-government. Led by the Interior Department, the service builds on relationships already established by stakeholders of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure and includes state, local and tribal government participants, as well as representatives from the private sector and academia.

As the name suggests, the program's goal is to reduce the frustration that citizens face in retrieving geospatial data from numerous sources. It aims to do this by providing access to data produced by government and nongovernment organizations through a single clearinghouse. Citizens would be able to find the data on the Web through a Web portal.

But perhaps the most aggressive in pushing GIS interoperability, at least at the technical level, is the Open GIS Consortium Inc., a group of more than 230 companies, government agencies and universities. The consortium is developing open GIS interface and protocol specifications and working to have them adopted across industry to spur "plug-and-play" interoperability between GIS systems.

The consortium also oversees

development of Geography Markup Language, a specification based on Extensible Markup Language. The consortium believes it will be central to the ability of organizations to share geographic information with one another via the Internet and also will

enable geographic datasets to be linked.

The consortium's take on GIS for homeland security is evident in its Critical Infrastructure Protection Initiative. Beginning this summer, a pilot project will test the kinds of interoperable tools and methods that can be used to share data among government and private-sector participants. It also will help identify any gaps that might exist in the consortium's set of specifications.

The pilot project will duplicate as closely as possible how the actual specifications will be incorporated into homeland security applications, said Mark Reichardt, the consortium's executive director of outreach and community adoption. Testing will continue for most of the summer.

Technological Agreement

Homeland security requires immediate access to any GIS data that's available, Intergraph's Holmes said. This is especially true because it's still not clear who will have overall responsibility for homeland security, he added. This means that agencies must focus on developing and maintaining live connections between organizations and identifying technology for real-time translation of GIS data formats.

Agencies also must focus on metadata standards, which describe what the form and function of certain data are, if any published data is to be useful, even after an interoperable network has been established.

"I can't imagine grabbing data at the local level without knowing about the metadata," Holmes said.

Metadata helps people determine what data is available and whether it meets their needs, and it describes how they can acquire and transfer it to their local system. It's also essential for those who generate geospatial data and want to share it with others.

The Content Standard for Digital Geospatial Metadata is the national basis for GIS metadata. The standard, which was adopted by FGDC in 1994 and first published in 1998, is continually being updated to incorporate new developments in GIS, such as adding extensions for remote-sensing data.

These far-reaching ideas are designed to encourage everyone in the GIS community to use the same language. There are others who go even further, envisioning compatibility between GIS and other database standards that could overcome many of the technical difficulties of making geospatial systems work together (see "Mainstreaming GIS crucial to more sharing," Page S28).

People and Plans

At its most fundamental level, however, an interoperable GIS network depends on people being willing to share data. All the technology in the world will not help if that willingness does not exist. And not everyone is convinced it does.

"Clearly, the greatest potential is at the local government level, and you need common approaches for sharing data across boundaries at that level," said Lisa Warnecke, president of GeoManagement Associates and a consultant on GIS issues for federal, state and local governments. "I am very concerned that awareness of that is not growing."

In Pennsylvania, officials developed a plan to allow sharing across traditional boundaries, in part by recognizing that an overarching plan sets the rules but different agencies need to find their own ways to comply with them (see "For PAIRS, patience begets buy-in," Page S26).

While people are certainly talking about the need for information sharing at a high level in government, it's not clear if the rhetoric has extended to the operational level, Warnecke said.

Much of the data collected by local governments is produced for a distinct function — for example, to aid utilities or firefighting services. Such data would be the bedrock of any interoperable GIS network.

But no one is even talking to local regulators about the need for that kind of data to be compatible, Warnecke said, and utilities have typically been reluctant to make information available about their infrastructures. In addition, some local governments are willing to share information for free while others want to charge for it.

Clearly, we need a national plan that will pull together all of these elements and provide a clear vision for using GIS in homeland security, according to James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Clinton administration and now president of his own public safety and emergency management consulting firm, James Lee Witt Associates LLC.

"I'm just amazed that [the government] is looking to approve some $38 billion for homeland defense without such a national plan being in place," he said. "My concern is that, if the funding gets approved without it, people at the local level will go and buy technology widgets that will not be compatible."

According to Witt, GIS is an "awesome tool" that has broad applications. It proved its worth time and again during his tenure at FEMA, "but a lot of local governments still don't understand what GIS can do for them."

New technology is not what's needed, according to FGDC, because the current geospatial information technology can provide decision-makers with all data they need to confront a wide variety of threats. It's the adoption of that technology by federal, state and local jurisdictions that is lacking.

And providing an interoperable GIS network is proving to be a complicated task.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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