Off the Chart

A little-known GIS program might play an expanding role in policymaking.

by / February 2, 2006
Deep inside the Library of Congress, two dedicated GIS professionals toil away in almost complete obscurity. Few know what they do or where to find them. Housed in the basement of the library, Ginny Mason and Jacob Zonn direct and operate the Congressional Cartography Program (CCP).

From the Library of Congress to local governments, GIS mapping is becoming a valuable tool for forming and implementing public policy. GIS presents decision-makers with a perspective that was impossible in the past.

So what exactly does CCP do? Who uses it and why? Are federal lawmakers really ready to factor GIS technology into their decision-making? The answers to those questions require an in-depth look at a program many don't know exists, including those it's designed to assist.

Two's Company
For years, the Library's Geography and Map Division had an informal process of delivering on occasional, scattered requests for GIS services.

"The Geography and Map Division has basically been giving GIS services on an ad hoc basis for five to 10 years," said Zonn. "Not too many requests had been coming in ... I'm talking one request every six months."

In 2003 -- with GIS commonplace -- library officials recognized an emerging need for GIS maps. CCP was created to be the exclusive GIS mapping source for Congress and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the research arm of Congress. As experienced GIS analysts, Zonn and Mason were hired to create something from virtually nothing.

"Ginny and I basically built this program from the ground up," Zonn said. "We arrived here with two copies of [ESRI's] ArcView and a 60-inch plotter, and no real vision or mission to get going on, so we've created all that ourselves."

While building CCP, Zonn and Mason developed a coherent mission. Essentially they create high-quality GIS cartographic products for members of Congress and CRS. But built into that mission was a challenge. Would Congress members want to use CCP, or even understand what they could accomplish with it?

So far, Zonn and Mason produced more than 150 GIS maps for various members of Congress and their staff. The two hope that by producing quality work and detailing how GIS can aid legislators, their small program can expand into a convenient analysis and support resource with a larger staff.

CCP has no marketing budget, so virtually every client is the result of word-of-mouth advertising. CCP reportedly has a few returning customers who rave about the maps.

"[The response] is extremely positive," said Mason. "With some repeat customers, we're starting to see them thinking about things slightly differently than they did when they first approached us with requests. It's definitely been positive feedback, and they're very supportive of expanding our program."

Does It Matter?
The fact that the Library of Congress maintains this cartographic program is important to the GIS community, but why should Congress care?

Mason explained what she thought CCP's more philosophical purpose is.

"We want people to think in a geographical and spatial manner instead of just calling up and asking for a map of a location," she said. "What does that actually mean to our customer? We try to get them to really think in a geographical kind of way."

While that seems like a good way to approach their mission, when asked, both Zonn and Mason seemed to have difficulty describing what exactly they produce. Mason clarified that CCP typically produces two kinds of maps -- those relating to legislative issues and those relating to a member's constituency or district.

But Mason said what their maps look like depends on the request, and that they've created maps at the block level up to a global level.

Mason did note that CCP created a block-level map that helped FEMA assess damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. She also said CCP worked on a project having to do with the legislation for re-establishment of funding for Amtrak. When pressed for more details or examples, however, neither elaborated.

While it was difficult to uncover precisely what they create at CCP, it was clear what they don't.

"We don't do campaign maps or any sort of campaigning," Mason said. "They can request a map that shows some sort of variable in their district. But you can't do any sort of mapping on political parties of voters and that sort of thing."

It is difficult to find any information on CCP. Fortunately one source was able to shed more light on the program.

Gerry Clancy, a project manager at ESRI, helped Zonn and Mason get CCP up and running, and has firsthand knowledge of what the two are capable of creating -- and how such maps help Congress members.

"[CCP's] primary role is to be a support for Congress in providing geospatial and mapping analysis in support of any issue that might come across their table," Clancy said. "They do some really phenomenal work in bringing together maps and data to understand 'how'... for whatever issue that might be affected by a representative in their congressional district."

Clancy said CCP draws their information from a wide array of sources. Typically when creating a map for a member of Congress, CCP can access the vast stores of data within the Library of Congress.

"They have broad data sets," Clancy said. "They have national coverage of all of the demographic, economic and road networks and congressional districts -- they overlay onto that information provided to them by the various branches [of government], and depending on what the question is, they do some spatial analysis to help them understand how all that fits together."

Clancy said an example might be CCP producing a map highlighting how a military base closure will affect a nearby town in terms of economics or population. Another legislator might ask it to create a dynamic map detailing how a health-care initiative will affect low-income areas within his or her district.

The secret of CCP is not that it's presenting surreptitious or extraordinary information. The value Congress members should find in CCP is how it can present data. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a dynamic GIS map is worth much more. If a member is on the House floor arguing for highway funding in his district, the argument can be more compelling if the legislator can present a map clearly defining past, present and future traffic conditions; the impacts on the communities; and costs to the environment -- all in a vibrant, dynamic GIS map.

Clancy said CCP presents Congress with a valuable resource. The maps it produces can go a long way in explaining, defending or opposing legislation in the House or Senate -- much further than slides, copies or stacks of paper.

"It's the visual analysis and portrayal of the policy," said Clancy. "Instead of presenting in a table, they're presenting in a map form some very vivid information. They're down in the basement, kind of out of the way, but they do some really amazing analytical work."

The Road Ahead
As GIS technology progresses, it promises to become a more potent influence in government policymaking. CCP appears to be a good step in the direction of a geospatially savvy Congress. Like many new technologies, however, there is apt to be resistance, and it may take time before lawmakers think and reason geospatially.

"How do you influence decision-makers?" asked Cindy Domenico, president of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association -- a cross-disciplinary organization of professionals who work together in GIS. "How do you help them understand what you're bringing to the table when you have this technology? What you need to do, if you're the technologist, is think of it from their perspective -- what is their problem really -- and then how can you give them a visual to help them see the benefits the technology will bring to them? A lot of people aren't ready [for the technology]. It takes a visual image of the problem solved to help them understand it."

The beauty of GIS technology is that it provides that visual image some will require to understand its effectiveness. According to Clancy, Congress and CRS are quite fortunate to have CCP -- even if they don't know it exists.

"I think [CCP] should be the arm that Congress goes to for spatial analysis and policy questions," she said. "I think they are an amazing resource that ought to be tapped on every single policy question that comes up on the Hill."
Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.


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