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Capitol Gains: A strategic approach to building a national spatial data infrastructure.

December 1, 2008
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In recent years, many initiatives have been promoted or endorsed to some degree by a federally funded research study.



All of them are good ideas (see sidebar). Each would contribute to the well-being of the American people and would create considerable market and business opportunities for surveyors, mapping professionals and other geospatial practitioners. However, none is authorized or funded by Congress.

It is time for the geospatial community to develop a comprehensive, integrated strategy for improving the spatial data infrastructure of the United States. Without one, it is unlikely that any of these worthwhile initiatives will ever become a reality.

Look at the newspapers from the past several months, and you will see issue after issue-energy, climate change, transportation, homeland security, housing and mortgages-capturing the attention of the media and the American people. There is no question that the proposed geospatial initiatives would have helped address these problems. Let’s take another look at how the American people would benefit from some of these initiatives and programs.

Energy and Climate Change

As we look for areas to explore, drill and extract fossil fuels-oil, gas, shale and coal-it is clear that such activities would be enhanced by better geographic information about our natural resources. Additionally, the nation’s ability to develop these energy sources in an environmentally sensitive manner could be enhanced by better imagery, mapping and survey data.

As I pointed out in my November 2007 column, there is a need for geospatial data to measure, monitor, verify and validate the phenomena that may be caused by global climate change. The United States currently lacks basic data sets that would enable scientists as well as Congress, the White House and other policymakers to make informed decisions about environmental controls that could have serious economic and quality-of-life implications for the American people. Such fundamental data sets could be developed by surveyors, mapping professionals and others in the geospatial disciplines to determine if climate change is indeed having the effect some claim.

Transportation

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that $1.6 trillion is needed over a five-year period to bring the nation’s infrastructure to a good condition. For a long time, the organization has graded the status of America’s bridges and roads as failing. ASCE’s dire predictions turned prophetic in August 2007 when the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis-St. Paul collapsed. The status of America’s information about its infrastructure-the surveys, maps and other geospatial data providing an inventory of what we have and where it is located-is in no better shape.

The Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) report “Geospatial Information Infrastructure for Transportation Organizations: Toward a Foundation for Improved Decision Making” said that the ability to make well-informed, responsible decisions is critical to shaping the nation’s transportation infrastructure. “Geospatial data are a foundation for relevant and critical information for planning, engineering, asset management, and operations associated with every transportation mode at all levels of government and administration.”[1] The report states that government transportation agencies must “respond to a world in which data and technology are evolving more rapidly than the institutions that use them” and calls for “a new model for development and use of geospatial information by the transportation system.”

Describing this model, the TRB report states:

The actions necessary to make widespread use of geospatial data in a systematic way could be achieved through a focused alliance and collaboration among public, private, and academic communities. A key is in recognizing that the role of federal agencies is to enable state and local agencies and the private sector to carry out their missions.[2]

Transportation data are not limited to transportation applications. States merge street and geocoded address data to help apportion taxes. Land use and transportation are inexorably related. The ability to bring goods to market is not only an issue of transportation but also of economics. These problems do not stop at city, county or state borders. Uncoordinated data-development efforts-at all levels of government and the private sector-hinder a comprehensive and collaborative national transportation GIS program.

Homeland Security

Whether it is identifying critical infrastructure, locating buildings and facilities that might be terrorist targets, planning emergency evacuation routes, creating preparedness plans for hurricanes, protecting homes and businesses from floods, or maintaining accurate wireless Enhanced 911 systems so emergency services can reach victims in a timely and efficient manner, there are numerous applications for geospatial data in homeland security.

Many programs of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) use geographic data. A DHS report on federal grants provides this description of its importance:

Geospatial technologies capture, store, analyze, transmit, and/or display location-based information (i.e., information that can be linked to a latitude and longitude). In geospatial systems, this location information is often paired with detailed information about the location such as the following: purpose/use, status, capacity, engineering schematics, operational characteristics, environmental and situational awareness.

State and local emergency organizations are increasingly incorporating geospatial technologies and data to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist activity and incidents of national significance. In the preparedness phase, homeland security planners and responders need current, accurate, and easily accessible information to ensure the readiness of teams to respond. Also an important component in strategy development is the mapping and analysis of critical infrastructure vulnerabilities, and public health surveillance capabilities. Geospatial information can provide a means to prevent terrorist activity by detecting and analyzing patterns of threats and possible attacks, and sharing that intelligence. During response and recovery, geospatial information is used to provide a dynamic common operating picture, coordinate and track emergency assets, enhance 911 capabilities, understand event impacts, accurately estimate damage, locate safety zones for quarantine or detention, and facilitate recovery.[3]

Despite this recognition of the role of geospatial data in homeland security, are we in any better shape seven years after 9/11? A robust, national program to provide location-based situational awareness is yet to be developed.  According to a National Academy of Sciences panel, “The importance of geospatial data and tools should be recognized and integrated into all phases of emergency management and, specifically, into the national plans and policies … and existing emergency management procedures.”[4]

Housing and Mortgages

In July, I wrote a column in which I quoted Dr. David Cowen, distinguished professor emeritus of geography at the University of South Carolina and chairman of a National Research Council (NRC) study panel. The NRC panel published a report regarding the critical need for parcel data titled “Land Parcel Data Base: A National Vision.” According to Cowen, “If the federal government had paid attention to the recommendations of the 1980 NRC report, we would have had an early warning system that could have prevented the subprime mortgage crisis.” It would be a gross understatement to say the mortgage crisis has gone from bad to worse with the federal government taking over Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other financial institutions to the tune of $1 trillion. A multipurpose cadastre may have saved us from the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.

Each of these initiatives could cost millions of dollars. What is not known is whether current government investments could be better coordinated to implement these new programs without an increase in spending. That is one outcome that could be realized from the Bush Administration’s geospatial line of business.[5] Which initiative should go first? Can and should they all be done? How will they be funded? It is time for the entire geospatial community to come together to answer these questions. More importantly, the community must inform the public and, more significantly, federal officials in Congress and the new administration about the critical role geospatial data plays in a variety of pressing national issues.

The National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC, www.fgdc.gov/ngac) is taking the first step toward harmonizing these initiatives and requirements. The federal government’s outside advisors on geospatial issues will design a national geospatial strategy that will provide an outline on how to proceed with these programs. NGAC has begun to review each of the data initiatives and develop recommendations for their efficient rationalization, prioritization and implementation.

But NGAC can’t do it alone. It is time for the entire community to serve the public’s interest.



References

1- “Geospatial Information Infrastructure for Transportation Organizations: Toward a Foundation for Improved Decision Making,” Transportation Research Board Conference Proceedings 31, 2004, p.3, trb.org/publications/conf/CP31spatialinfo.pdf.

2- Id. 2 “Successful Response Starts With A Map: Improving Geospatial Support for Disaster Management”, National Academies Press, 2007, books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11793#toc .

3- “FY 2006 Homeland Security Grant Program Program Guidance and Application Kit,” December 2005, p.25. www.ojp.usdoj.gov/odp/docs/fy2006hsgp.pdf.

4- “Successful Response Starts With A Map: Improving Geospatial Support for Disaster Management,” National Academies Press, 2007.

5- “Geospatial Line of Business,” Federal Geographic Data Committee, www.fgdc.gov/geospatial-lob.

Sidebar: Geospatial Initiatives Proposed for the Nation

  • Digital Coast
  • Elevation for the Nation
  • Imagery for the Nation
  • Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping
  • National LiDAR Initiative
  • National Land Imaging Program
  • National Land Parcel Data
  • The National Map
  • National Spatial Data Infrastructure
  • Transportation for the Nation


What do you think? Share your opinion with other POB readers by writing to pobeditor@bnpmedia.

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