Point of Beginning

Digital Edition Exclusive: Taming the Wild GIS

October 8, 2009


An infinite number of disparate spatial and nonspatial data sources exist, much like the proliferations of hardware and software combinations. Merging and developing relationships with these data have changed the way we perceive and interact with our environment. Geospatial data usage has evolved into a necessary science and has revolutionized the way data are collected, analyzed and displayed.

Advances in and combinations of LiDAR, GPS, GIS and Web technologies have catapulted the collection of spatial data as well as their rate of use. Various reports from the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) point to an escalation in the use of geospatial data at all levels. In its recommendations to the 2008-2009 presidential transition team, the National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) noted the BLS’s prediction that the geospatial sector will be one of the areas that will create the most jobs in the coming years. In a related report, the DOI indicated that approximately 80 percent of government data consists of a spatial component. A GIS advocate would put this figure at 100 percent and invoke the Confucius saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.” Everything occupies space; this is how we make sense of where people and objects are in relation to us.

GIS is a powerful analysis tool that realizes relationships in spatial phenomena. It facilitates intelligent decisions by providing a spatially blended mix of information that directs the appropriate resources to the most urgent needs. Today, using GIS and related tools is a daily occurrence. Many of us surf our county GIS Web sites for property information, use Internet mapping for directions and take for granted our in-car GPS systems. There is no doubt that, over the years, GIS has helped spatially enable us all in one way or another.

The “Wild West” Mentality

By the same token, the rise in the use of GIS has also led to some unstructured development in the foundation and methods of its feature creation. Technology companies continue to pile on new functions that make the creation and incorporation of features into a GIS as uncomplicated as possible. CAD and GIS software is now easily accessible on desktops across the nation. The beauty of GIS has graced magazine pages, conferences and almost every government and academic institution. The tables have turned from the CAD\GIS technician trying to convince supervisors of the benefits of using GIS to a management push for development of in-house GIS.

The relative ease of use of GIS technology has presented a straightforward way to fulfill organizational requirements. As a result, gung-ho GIS implementations have ended up scattered across the country. These early forms contained individually created spatial data sets--systems that had their own unique identifiers, datums, standards and accuracies--and were restricted to working within the realm and purpose of their creators.

The sheer power of GIS is that of linking data sets together to establish geospatial relationships. Isolated developments are duplicative, impede future data integration into external systems and, consequently, result in foregone spatial relationships. Yet these were the kinds of geospatial data being simultaneously recreated across the country in the early days of GIS adoption. These fragmented data sets present a problem because, in most geographic information systems, thematic layers such as the geodetic control, orthoimagery, hydrology, cadastre, transportation and administrative units form the basis or ground structure upon which all other themes are layered.

A Concerted Effort

A coordinated effort in the use of geospatial data that enables sharing, standards and policy is therefore critical. These fundamental requirements must be in place when mobilizing and directing resources--especially during a national emergency response where time, accessibility and accuracy of information has a direct and lasting impact on life. A natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina is an unfortunate example.

The National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) was set up in 1994 by Executive Order 12096, which was issued by President Clinton, and amended by President George W. Bush in 2003 to address these issues by continually seeking to harmonize the creation and usage of geographic information nationally. The Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) is tasked with leading this effort and has the full support and backing of the federal government.

In today’s economy, many people are looking for ways to recycle and reduce waste. It therefore makes sense that we would also utilize our data in an efficient manner. Many organizations find it difficult to develop and maintain huge data sets; some say that data collection and maintenance exceeds 80 percent in terms of cost. This expenditure can be significant on some local authorities’ budgets, especially in the current economy. However, by becoming a participant under the NSDI framework, you share the costs and benefits of making your data available to other contributors and vice versa.

Another advantage that can be gained from sharing data is the purging of duplicated efforts. In information database strategies, the responsibility for the capture of the data is placed with an appropriate authority. In other words, the data are created by those who can verify, legitimize and take responsibility for the data (i.e., surveyors). An integrity control is therefore placed at the source of the data, which allows them to be furnished to subsequent processes as reliable data. The data are broken down to their simplest descriptive form, uniquely identified and made available for connection to other processes. This method helps eliminate redundancy as well as establish the data’s credibility.

With geospatial data, issues of accuracy, appropriateness and relevancy consistently arise. Trusting someone else’s data can be a major barrier to sharing. To alleviate this burden of worry, the NSDI framework encapsulates technical aspects that facilitate housing data sets complete with their metadata--information describing the contents of spatial data. The framework must be a feature-based data model with permanent unique identifiers. The data sets must reference modern geodetic datums, both horizontal and vertical. Ultimately, they must integrate with surrounding spatial features. Spatial data disseminated in this way through NSDI data clearinghouses and within the specified parameters would be able to transcend current boundaries, permeate institutions, software and hardware platforms, and present the ability for spatial data to be widely distributed across the nation.

Common Ground Through Standards

Standards help us find common ground upon which to communicate, exchange and interpret information. They allow us to make data inclusive, updateable and verifiable. Standardization saves us time, money and, most of all, sets an example for us to follow. Standards help to efficiently and effectively deliver a formidable product or service. A familiar set of standards and those that give us a certain level of comfort are those provided by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). It is worthwhile to recognize that the Federal Geographic Data Committee’s (FGDC) metadata content standard, Geospatial Metadata Profile (GEO), is based on ANSI/NISO Z39.50. Adopting standards however, can still initially present a challenge.

Have you ever learned to played tennis or golf on your own and then, years later, tried to take professional lessons? At first, the new methods may negatively affect your level of performance. As the new technique is adopted and practiced, the change that once seemed clumsy and painful becomes the technique that takes your game to the next level. Though both methods of play roughly accomplish the same objective, professional techniques developed by the masters of the sport are geared toward a consistently better performance.

Establishing standards in our industry under the NSDI framework is similar to this experience and will facilitate the integration of geospatial data from all sources. Such integration will lead to a more productive use of data and a more-informed spatial network. Procedures may change, but having a NSDI framework developed by a leading multifaceted team presents a formidable advantage for local, tribal, state and federal governments as well as private enterprise and academia.

Our expectation of how fast we retrieve and use data is also a driving force for the implementation of national standards. The power of the Internet as a resource to share and disseminate information is phenomenal. Spatial data are accessible on the Internet and through cloud-computing services to a host of applications. It is imperative that we remain consistent in standards and methodology. Everyone gets on the Web and requires information instantaneously. We have grown accustomed to this. But with the many formats that currently exist, there must be a standard translator or mechanism such as Unified Markup Language (UML) and XML Metadata Interchange (XMI) as orchestrated by the NSDI framework for data--one that appropriately directs its use.

At one time or another, we have seen the “puzzle graphic” used by many in the GIS field to illustrate the idea of seamless integration of data. This utopian figure was well chosen as the ideal vision of structured spatial data. Data must be present, ready to connect, in a consumable format and with attached metadata assuring its relevancy. Your goal should be to create your piece of the puzzle so that it fits into a wider national vision. By using an NSDI approach, most of the work is already done for you in terms of structure and, as a participant, you are the owner. That is your stake.

Policy--the Glue That Holds the Structure in Place

With massive amounts of important information left to chance, coordination and strategic planning are of utmost importance. Guidelines need to be followed to encourage sharing and enable standards to simultaneously evolve as well as to ensure that people, systems and geospatial data can work in synchronization with each other.

The FGDC is a federal interagency and, as such, it is guided by policies set by Congress and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the design of its activities. FGDC is responsible for establishing all geospatial policies in line with those of the current information policies in use. A major activity of the FGDC is the 50 States Initiative. This tactical plan seeks to fulfill the requirements of the NSDI by involving each of the 50 states in coordinating all of their geospatial activities. Experts are also discussing the possibility of a “national GIS,” according to the June 2009 Congressional Research Service report.[1] If you are a GIS enthusiast or concerned individual, I urge you to go to FGDC’s Web site, locate your state and become a part of this transformation.[2]

A New Frontier

Moore’s Law gives some insight on the exponential growth of technology. One day, we will no longer be focused on collecting data as methods and processes become rudimentary and disk space and size become irrelevant. If we adhere to policies, procedures and standards as exampled by the FGDC, we will be well on the way to establishing a national spatial data infrastructure and possibly a national GIS.

Our greatest concern should be discovering relationships through GIS that will help preserve and protect our planet. In order to achieve the best possible outcome, we must begin with this end in mind and commit to the development of a process that has been churning for more than two decades. For far too long, we have built models of geographic information systems that create barriers to the strategic execution of these technologies based on our preconceived notions of GIS. We want a better world, but we are using the same old paradigms, thought processes, philosophies and politics. Yet we expect different results every time. A national framework is continually developing, created by some of the greatest minds in our field and involving input from every sector concerned. We have the chance to make a difference. Let us seize the opportunity.


References
1. Folger, Peter, “Geospatial Information and Geographic Information Systems (GIS): Current Issues and Future Challenges” (R40625), online at
www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40625.pdf.

2. More information about the 50 States Initiative can be found at
www.fgdc.gov/policyandplanning/50states.


View this article in the digital edition here, www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/bnp/pob_200910/#/42.