One-Stop Shopping

Federal, state and local agencies work together on a portal for sharing GIS files.

by / July 29, 2003
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 from several sources in widely dispersed locations, but this is transparent to the user. Along with viewing that map, in many cases users can also import the data into their own GIS, Reichardt said.

Who Benefits?
The portal clearly offers benefits to federal and state agencies. To meet their own needs, local governments develop large-scale maps -- often at 1:2,400 inches, Fairfax County's Conry explained. "The feds tend to compile their data at best at 1:24,000," he said, noting that if counties and cities contribute GIS files to the portal, federal and state agencies will have access to more accurate maps than they can develop on their own.

That particular advantage doesn't run in both directions. "The feds will have the ability to get information from all the different local governments," Jarreau said.

Since counties and cities usually develop the most accurate maps of their areas, access to GIS data created by state and federal agencies doesn't always help them. But easy access to data for neighboring jurisdictions could help local governments with regional applications, such as environmental management and homeland security.

Most watersheds cut across political boundaries, Garie explained, and a county examining land use within a watershed would need data from several of its neighbors.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if, from your browser, you could pull in land use data from the four or five other counties also in that watershed?" he asked, adding that the One-Stop portal would allow a county to download any available data about that region, whether developed by federal, state or local agencies.

It might also help agencies save money, since they could leverage GIS data that other agencies already developed, Conry said. "Potentially Geospatial One-Stop could go to the next level and become a purchasing approach," he said, in which agencies with similar needs could share the cost of aerial photography and other activities.

If the portal helps federal agencies deploy GIS funds more effectively, that will help local governments as well, Jarreau said. "In the past, the funding was there, but it was spent on doing useless activities that didn't provide us the right information or the right scale data," he said.

Potential users also like that Geospatial One-Stop will encourage agencies to describe similar geographic features in similar ways, making it possible to blend data from different sources in a single map. "To the extent that they start to foster more of a standardization process, I see real value coming out [of that effort]," Conroy said.

Along with developing a central portal, the Geospatial One-Stop program will urge states to create portals of their own, so data can be easily shared across a network of portals nationwide, according to Garie.

How to Pay?
Persuading state and local governments to join the collaborative effort could prove a challenge, Garie said. "It will probably take some outreach and education on our part," he said. "And it may also require us to think creatively about partnerships to engage state and locals to begin to roll out the portals at the state nodes."

"Partnerships" means cost sharing, and one big concern for state and local governments is how to afford participation in Geospatial One-Stop. "It's going to require the implementation of common standards," NACo's Jarreau said. "To get a county to do that, you're going to have to come up with some funding."

Local governments also need help keeping their GIS files up to date, Conry said.

"We ought to be sharing our data up the chain -- state, federal, regional," he said, adding that in exchange for providing data in standard formats, local governments could benefit from federal-local partnerships to cover the bills.

To keep costs down for state and local governments, standards arising from Geospatial One-Stop should be minimal, Trobia said, which would create just enough conformity to allow agencies to share data. But they should not force agencies to drastically revise GIS installations they already have in place, or require them to meet cumbersome requirements when creating new databases.

Many local governments consider their data proprietary, Trobia said. They're concerned about costs of participating in Geospatial One-Stop and possible liability issues should someone use their data improperly.

"They're looking at trying to do cost recovery for making that data available," Trobia said. "So not all data is available for free. But I like to think that even if that's the case, data should be freely available."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs