Piecing It Together

California GIS Council seeks to better coordinate GIS statewide.

by / August 3, 2004
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 Governor's Office of Planning and Research; the Governor's Office of Emergency Services and the state CIO.

In March 2001, a workshop was convened to brainstorm and set the vision for the new GIS Council. State sponsors of the council, other members of the former council and various interested parties attended the workshop. The outcome was a revised charter and a restructured membership that was of a more manageable size and better suited to focus on policy.

The reconstituted California GIS Council (CGC) met for the first time on Aug. 13, 2003.

"On the council, we have representation from 17 regional coordinating groups around California," said Joe Concannon, senior planner at the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and region representative. "They are all arranged a little differently. Some are very formal, like the San Francisco Bay area. We are probably in the middle. Some are very informal, like the North Coast Users Group."

Current Objectives
So far, the resurrected council has only met twice, and priorities for the council are still being hammered out. Ellison said the top priority, however, is to push the state to appoint a GIS officer to coordinate GIS efforts on an ongoing basis, just as many other states have. In fact, this is one point now included in the NSGIC's state model for GIS coordination.

"That was probably the single most important recommendation made by the original Geographic Information Task Force back in 1993 -- that the state should form the office of the GIS officer," said Ellison. "In other words, just as the state has a CIO, the state should have a GIO as well. Obviously that recommendation was never acted on, and that continues to be the primary objective and hope of California's GIS community."

Because imagery is so important and expensive, the council requested federal funding for imagery acquisition.

"The council is seeking a $4 million one-time cost, followed with an ongoing grant of approximately $200,000 a year until the program can be self-maintaining," said Ellison. "The idea is to bring enough money to the table so other folks who are already investing in imagery could do so in a collaborative fashion. They could take their existing investments and leverage them into a more communal acquisition process. Basically we are looking for a reasonably high-resolution satellite image for the entire state -- a one meter or better, multispectral, multicolor image."

Another priority for the council is the development of better GIS metadata -- data about data.

"To a lay person, it would be like a library's card catalog," said Richard Mader of the Southern California GIS Government Users Group, who is also on the council's metadata work group. "It gives you enough information about the data so you know where and what it is, and spatial data has certain other requirements because of the spatial accuracy and so forth."

The council is also seeking to promote better exchange of information on what local jurisdictions are planning, such as acquiring aerial photography and exploring the formation of partnerships to save money.

Through coordinated efforts, redundancies can be eliminated. Data can be collected once and used many times by different agencies and jurisdictions, and that is only the beginning of benefits and cost-savings, said the California GIS Council's Hansen.

"We also know GIS is absolutely essential to keeping our communities safe, and to more effectively manage large disasters, water issues, policing and fire issues," she said. "A lot of these maps are used by government to plan and improve a host of services in a community. Better management also can save money.

"But there is only so much a council with no funding can do. Some money is needed to do the job right, and we are not even talking about a lot of money compared to so many other appropriations."
Blake Harris Contributing Editor