Sometimes out of a crisis comes opportunity. The active Atlantic hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 -- eight hurricanes impacted Florida, killing 208 residents -- spurred government officials to improve everything from weather forecasting to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's chain of command.

In Florida, post-storm data analysis illustrated how better statewide coordination of geospatial information during the hurricanes likely would have saved more lives and enhanced emergency managers' efforts to evacuate part of the state's 19,500 square miles of coastal zone. The Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) initially took the lead in formulating a statewide GIS strategic plan.

"Our director, Craig Fugate, has a pretty simple charge: In the absence of leadership, become one," said Richard Butgereit, GIS administrator of the FDEM.

In 2007, the Federal Geographic Data Committee awarded the FDEM a grant to develop strategic and business plans for statewide geospatial data coordination in support of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure's (NSDI) Fifty States Initiative, an effort to mesh states' coordinated efforts with the federal government. To put together the strategic plan, the FDEM hired Fugro EarthData Inc., a geospatial products and services company, which reached out to 1,000 Florida GIS professionals for input. The final version of the strategic plan was published in April.

"I was surprised about the almost ubiquitous support for coordination activities because I expected some resistance from the GIS community," said Fugro EarthData Vice President Martin Roche.

Though there's broad support for cooperation, the state's strategic plan indicates Florida still lags behind other states' coordination efforts. In addition, the state won't be able to implement the strategic plan's recommended goals without sustained funding from the Florida Legislature.

Playing Catch-Up

If implemented programmatically, Florida's statewide GIS coordination plan urges several major improvements, including: creating a new Geospatial Programs Office staffed with a full-time GIS coordinator; expanding upon geospatial data "stewardship" programs; and creating a statewide Geographic Information Council made up of respected professionals.

In addition, the plan calls for sustaining and expanding the state's public data clearing-houses that are currently located at the University of Florida and Florida State University. As it now stands, there's confusion within Florida's GIS community about where to find specific data layers, and the structure needs to be formalized and consolidated, Butgereit said. As he explained it, Florida should hang onto its existing resources and build "a new lobby" to access the data.

"Some of the state agencies are providing data online," Butgereit said. "Some universities are definitely working to provide data -- Florida International University has positioned itself as the provider for lidar [light detection and ranging] and elevation data. The Central Florida GIS Users Group has done a really good job of providing a lot of data available in their region."

With the improvements in place, Al Hill, Volusia County's GIS manager and chairman of the Central Florida GIS Steering Committee, said Florida agencies could contribute to programs such as Imagery for the Nation, a federally driven plan to provide 1-foot resolution for aerial imagery that would be updated regularly via flyovers. He added that better coordination would also help local jurisdictions find federal grant money.

"It's not practical to expect the federal government to coordinate with a half-dozen agencies, especially when some of them are less formal than others. So I can understand their approach is, 'We've got 50 states; there should be 50 points of contact.' We don't have that in Florida," Hill said.

The strategic plan isn't the first time Florida has tried to consolidate and centralize GIS coordination. Over the last 20 years, the state has made at least three efforts to form organizing bodies, such as the Growth Management Data Network Coordinating Council and the Base Mapping Advisory Committee. The most recent iteration came in 1999 with the Geographic Information Board's formation,

Matt Williams  |  Associate Editor