Mason did note that CCP created a block-level map that helped FEMA assess damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. She also said CCP worked on a project having to do with the legislation for re-establishment of funding for Amtrak. When pressed for more details or examples, however, neither elaborated.

While it was difficult to uncover precisely what they create at CCP, it was clear what they don't.

"We don't do campaign maps or any sort of campaigning," Mason said. "They can request a map that shows some sort of variable in their district. But you can't do any sort of mapping on political parties of voters and that sort of thing."

It is difficult to find any information on CCP. Fortunately one source was able to shed more light on the program.

Gerry Clancy, a project manager at ESRI, helped Zonn and Mason get CCP up and running, and has firsthand knowledge of what the two are capable of creating -- and how such maps help Congress members.

"[CCP's] primary role is to be a support for Congress in providing geospatial and mapping analysis in support of any issue that might come across their table," Clancy said. "They do some really phenomenal work in bringing together maps and data to understand 'how'... for whatever issue that might be affected by a representative in their congressional district."

Clancy said CCP draws their information from a wide array of sources. Typically when creating a map for a member of Congress, CCP can access the vast stores of data within the Library of Congress.

"They have broad data sets," Clancy said. "They have national coverage of all of the demographic, economic and road networks and congressional districts -- they overlay onto that information provided to them by the various branches [of government], and depending on what the question is, they do some spatial analysis to help them understand how all that fits together."

Clancy said an example might be CCP producing a map highlighting how a military base closure will affect a nearby town in terms of economics or population. Another legislator might ask it to create a dynamic map detailing how a health-care initiative will affect low-income areas within his or her district.

The secret of CCP is not that it's presenting surreptitious or extraordinary information. The value Congress members should find in CCP is how it can present data. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a dynamic GIS map is worth much more. If a member is on the House floor arguing for highway funding in his district, the argument can be more compelling if the legislator can present a map clearly defining past, present and future traffic conditions; the impacts on the communities; and costs to the environment -- all in a vibrant, dynamic GIS map.

Clancy said CCP presents Congress with a valuable resource. The maps it produces can go a long way in explaining, defending or opposing legislation in the House or Senate -- much further than slides, copies or stacks of paper.

"It's the visual analysis and portrayal of the policy," said Clancy. "Instead of presenting in a table, they're presenting in a map form some very vivid information. They're down in the basement, kind of out of the way, but they do some really amazing analytical work."

The Road Ahead

As GIS technology progresses, it promises to become a more potent influence in government policymaking. CCP appears to be a good step in the direction of a geospatially savvy Congress. Like many new technologies, however, there is apt to be resistance, and it may take time before lawmakers think and reason geospatially.

"How do you influence decision-makers?" asked Cindy Domenico, president of the Urban and Regional Information Systems

Chad Vander Veen  |  Editor, FutureStructure

Chad Vander Veen is the editor of FutureStructure.com