When aerial photography markers began cropping up all over Fairfax County, Va. Tom Conry, the county's GIS manager, uncovered a case of senseless duplication.

"Sure enough, there were multiple agencies flying the same real estate," he said, adding that each agency paid separate photographers to take pictures of the same land.

Borrowing GIS data and files from another agency is another example of how agencies lose time and money managing geographic data in isolation. It's true that users can search a variety of state and federal clearing-houses for GIS data, said Gene Trobia, Arizona's state cartographer and president of the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC), but these sources merely provide metadata -- information about who created the files and what they contain.

To actually get the files, Trobia said, GIS professionals must contact the data's owners to arrange obtaining the information -- and there's no guarantee the data will be compatible with their in-house GIS.

If a new federal initiative succeeds, GIS endeavors at all government levels will be much more coordinated. The program, Geospatial One-Stop, is developing a Web portal website where users can instantly access GIS data from agencies countrywide. The program is one of 24 e-government initiatives the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) launched for government efficiency and better service.

Geospatial One-Stop fosters standards to simplify data exchange across different agencies and technical platforms. It's also working to support collaboration, so agencies with common interests can share the labor and cost of database development. Another goal is to give federal agencies easy access to detailed GIS data developed by local governments.

"If we can find local organizations developing data and can share that up the food chain, federal agencies would be able to coalesce that data into a national coverage," said Hank Garie, executive director of Geospatial One-Stop.

Local Voice

One symbol of the commitment to help state and local governments is the program's board of directors, where members from organizations representing state, county, city and tribal interests outnumber members from federal agencies. This helps provide true collaboration among different levels of governments.

"Our members are incredibly enthusiastic that they've got a local voice," said Bert Jarreau, CTO of the National Association of Counties (NACo) and a member of the Geospatial One-Stop board of directors.

"A lot of what's happened in the past has been federally driven," said Trobia, an alternate member of the board. "The federal agencies will get together and make these decisions, and the next thing we know, we're living with whatever comes out of that."

An early version of the portal, developed by GIS vendor ESRI, was launched June 30. The Open GIS Consortium (OGC) continues to work on a second portal prototype based on open standards.

To obtain data through the portal, users select a geographic area -- a state, county or watershed -- and start building a map. Searching a metadata catalog, users might first look for files in the "environmental" category, Garie explained. "When you find one you like, you have the ability to bring that into your map," he said.

The user might then switch to "transportation," pulling road networks onto the screen. Along with visual renderings of spatial data, users can access details about geographic features.

Agencies contributing data to the portal also keep the files in their computer systems. OGC developed standards for interfaces that permit users with GIS software from different vendors to share data through the portal.

"The interface allows you to move the data to a client through a common language," said Mark Reichardt, the OGC's executive director of outreach and community adoption.

A map developed on the portal might draw data

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer