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.
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,
but it lasted only one year and was defunded.
"That's what we're hoping to do with this new plan, get us back on our feet," Butgereit said. "I believe that when push came to shove, we operated very well when Florida most needed it -- during our active hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005. With this coordination in place, we would have done an even better job responding to those needs," said Butgereit, who became a de facto champion of statewide coordination through his role as Florida's delegate to the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC).
Florida ranks 49th among states for GIS coordination, as defined by the NSGIC's benchmarks. Of nine criteria, Florida has implemented only two: The federal government works through the statewide coordination authority, and responsibilities for developing the NSDI and the state clearing-house are assigned. In other categories, Florida lacks the necessary criteria, including a political "champion," a statewide coordination office linked to the state CIO, a full-time paid coordinator position and sustainable funding sources to meet program needs.
"Strategically I think we need to promote the use of GIS information and analysis to improve decision-making," Butgereit said. "Here at the state emergency operations center, we see these data and analyses through decision-making and affecting our citizens' health, safety and welfare. I think the same data and analysis, can be used to support our environment and economy."
Local Coordination Thrives
Though Florida trails other states in coordination metrics, the state certainly has a strong foundation of GIS expertise in its work force: The GIS Certification Institute has certified more GIS professionals in Florida than any other state.
Furthermore, the new strategic plan concluded that regional, volunteer-driven user communities, such as Central Florida GIS, the Seven Hills Regional User Group and county-level organizations enhance the state's GIS capabilities by organizing workshops and hosting portals.
"Unfortunately it's like a lot of the [U.S. presidential primary election] voting that goes on in Florida -- we're not a counted group because we weren't included," Hill explained. "If the survey was looked at based on regional groups, the state is actually doing quite a bit."
Several collaborative GIS projects are in progress in Florida. The FDEM is revamping its regional evacuation plans using precise elevation data created using lidar. According to the strategic plan, several agencies, including the Florida Department of Transportation, the Department of Revenue and regional water districts, are providing aerial photography for the project. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is providing the state with funding through "cooperative assistance awards."
The Florida Department of Revenue recently posted parcel data online, Butgereit said, and other projects for roads, hydrography and orthoimagery are under way.
But there's the looming problem of funding. The Florida Legislature is expected to cut the state's budget in fiscal 2009. The cost of these GIS improvements is unclear until a business plan is finished. If the strategic plan isn't funded, the strategic plan's steering committee would need to rely heavily on funding from the USGS to get the job done. According to Alexis Thomas, project director for the University of Florida's Geo-Facilities Planning and Information Research Center, securing funds from the federal government may be just as difficult.
"I definitely hope it carries through. This is a bad budget year for not only the state, but the feds as well," he said. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
For more information about Florida's statewide GIS coordination and to download the strategic plan, go to the Web site.