For a large and diverse state like California, it's remarkable that efforts to coordinate and develop an integrated statewide GIS still fall mainly to a volunteer-staffed entity that operates with no state mandate: the California GIS Council.

California lags behind many other states in what is now considered the effective state model for GIS coordination issued by the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC).

In a survey published in May 2004 by the NSGIC, California ranked behind 32 states in meeting the nine facets of effective GIS management, and probably would have ranked even lower without the voluntary GIS Council.

California's current budget problems and reorganization efforts have moved other priorities to the fore. As the NSGIC argued in its survey report, however, states must establish strong coordination efforts to minimize costs and leverage GIS efforts so all levels of government benefit.

"We know a coordinated effort on GIS saves money," said Donna Hansen, deputy city manager of Modesto, Calif., and co-chair of the California GIS Council. "It will save local governments a lot of money, and it will save the state a lot of money."

Fits and Starts

Efforts to develop statewide GIS policies and infrastructure date back more than 10 years. The council's genesis lies in the Governor's Geographic Information Task Force, convened by former Gov. Pete Wilson's Administration in 1993 as a result of the growing awareness that GIS could be a powerful analytic tool for all government levels.

The task force recommended forming a council to coordinate GIS efforts in California, as well as the creation of a Geographic Data Catalog and the posting of a state GIS officer to facilitate continuous coordination efforts.

Subsequently the state established the California Environmental Resources Evaluation System (CERES) within the California Resources Agency in 1995. CERES fulfilled one task force recommendation by developing and making available over the Internet the California Environmental Information Catalog (CEIC) -- a catalog of environmental data including spatial holdings.

Meanwhile, task force participants established the California Geographic Information Association in 1994 -- an organization instrumental in helping sustain existing GIS coordination throughout California. It received a grant from the Federal Geographic Data Committee in 1995 and partnered with the Resources Agency to enhance the CEIC.

However, it was not until 2000, through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) among the Resources Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) and the now-disbanded Department of Information Technology (DOIT), that a council was formed to coordinate and engineer cost sharing for GIS data development and maintenance.

"The idea of a council was first developed when there was a Department of Information Technology and Elias Cortez was in charge there, and Gary Darling was in the position I'm in now," said John Ellison, agency information technology officer at the Resources Agency. "They said we should do this to bring the right parties to the table because GIS is a multigovernmental issue. It has to involve government representatives all the way from the local to the federal level, with the state playing a key role. It also needs to engage the private sector so we can start talking about common data sets and common needs, and an infrastructure for developing, maintaining and sharing these data across all those levels."

Unfortunately executive sponsorship of the council waned after the demise of DOIT, which followed California's costly IT failures.

"There was a lot of political fallout from that, and some of the collateral damage in that whole fiasco was a stumbling of the California GIS Council," Ellison said. "The council seemed to lose momentum."

After reassessing interest, the Resources Agency set out to revive the council and through a revised MOU brought in several new entities -- the California Department of Health Services; the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency; the

Blake Harris  |  Contributing Editor