The Importance of Map Data Interoperability

Emergency Response Maps

After 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the lack of coordinated information and interoperable communications had tragic consequences. Citizens around the country demanded that government work together to correct otherwise avoidable problems.  Most people have heard about two-way radios in the debate over interoperable communications, but fewer realize the important role digital mapping plays in coordinated information and emergency response.  Digital mapping of government data, utilities, and infrastructure (collectively referred to as “spatial” or “geospatial” information) has become a cornerstone of information management and communication at all levels of government.   However, that spatial information is not yet coordinated across government agencies nor geographical regions.  When an electric crew from Indiana helps restore power after an ice storm in Atlanta, GA, the need for coordinated spatial information is great.  When a 911 cell phone call from an Illinois roadside gets routed to a dispatch center in Iowa,  the need for coordinated spatial information is great.  Similar examples of this need are remarkable and nearly limitless.

All Data Are Local

All data are local – and current sources of nation-wide (or world-wide) map data and services typically do not reflect authoritative (local government) sources of what is locally on the ground. Most sources lack vital information in less populated areas. Most sources take months or years with their data update cycles. (A notable exception is the growing, though not “authoritative” this “volunteered” map data making is a difference to emergency response around the world). Building a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) has been a stated goal of the federal government and many geospatial professionals for over a decade.  In those years, many obstacles and delays have prevented the realization of a vision for our nations information infrastructure.  An infrastructure that promises to improve the health, safety and welfare of our citizenry, as well as provide more efficient use of tax payer dollars. By and large, technology is no longer the obstacle – it is human.  The obstacles reflect a resistance to change and fear of the unknown by policy-makers and stewards of local spatial data (How will this change how we do business? How will it affect the privacy of our citizens? Will it reveal we are doing things “wrong”? How will we fund it?  Knowledge is power – will we be giving that up by making our data available to others? Will our own data be used against us?).  But there is also danger in complacency of those responsible for building the NSDI.  As resistance to change takes a strong hold, the status quo becomes more and more comfortable.  Building the NSDI is hard (What if we can’t get cooperation? What if the funding runs short? What if we have technology glitches? How do we keep things running once it is built?). And making the decision to go – not to talk about doing it, but REALLY do it – is difficult.  This assertion is not meant to point fingers, rather it is an effort to remind us all of where our challenges lie – sometimes even within ourselves.  Institutional inertia is strong and personal risk is real for those who challenge long-standing institutional practices.  Those risks, and accompanied inertia, can make the realization of SSDIs and the NSDI even more distant.  As we look to our nations future, we must decide if the NSDI is really what we want (do we really want the NSDI, or do we really want to keep doing what we are doing, supporting our satisfied customers, keep a low profile, keep talking about the vision?).

We Just Decided to Go. (you can too)

Several states are taking the reigns and deciding to go by building complimentary Statewide Spatial Data Infrastructures (SSDIs) as a means to get at the NSDI.  Organizations like the National States Geographic Information Council are helping to put form on this approach.  As in business, there is no real status quo – there is either forward progress or we are slipping.  Indiana is one such state that can say “we just decided to go.”  Earlier this year, Indiana’s Geographic Information Officer, statewide coordinating council (, and handful of state agencies asked local governments across the state to participate in the IndianaMap (Indiana’s SSDI).  The road has been long and not without challenges (e.g., see news stories “Commissioners reluctant to give out mapping information” and follow up story “Commissioners OK state’s mapping request”).  But deciding to go has resulted in 28 (of 92) counties signing on to participate within the first 6 months of the request, and over half the state’s population being covered.  While difficult, the result is definite progress toward coordinated information and interoperable communications for Indiana.

Those states who have committed to creating their own SSDIs have taken commendable steps to assure forward progress.  Without exception it has taken cooperation and strong leadership.  Those who just decided to go – let’s do this thing, and get’er done – are making real progress.  It would be impossible otherwise.

Proposal for a Quid Pro Quo Model for Geographic Data Exchange

Quid pro quo (Latin for “something for something” [1]) indicates a more-or-less equal exchange or substitution of goods or services.

Long time hindrances to the development of Statewide Spatial Data Infrastructures (SSDIs) and the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) have been financial, organizational, and political (most believe technical issues have already been overcome). High quality data produced by local government is often encumbered by restrictive local government licensing policies. Those same local governments are faced with the reality of large price tags for geospatial data development and maintenance and shrinking budgets. As regional, statewide, and national driving issues increasingly identify the essential need for integrated SSDIs and an NSDI, many local governments are justifiably concerned that their participation will become an unfunded mandate. In the face of these obstacles, many funding options have been proposed to help offset the high costs of data programs at the local government level and encourage their participation.

However, few programs at the state level have been successful in establishing programs where sustained funding flows among multiple jurisdictional and levels of government for geospatial data development and maintenance. In fact, most states still struggle to establish adequate funding for state-level programs, let alone funding that would flow to other entities. I believe that a Quid Pro Quo approach to developing SSDIs and the NSDI could be a successful one from the standpoint of establishing a funding mechanism for cost sharing among stakeholders and managing the real constraints of local government to participation. Under this model, those essential data sets to local, state, and federal government, i.e. Framework data (such as orthophotography, elevation, and hydrography), that can efficiently be produced over broad areas would be maintained by capable state and federal entities. Those data appropriately maintained by local (city and county*) jurisdictions would continue as such.

An equitable cost share for SSDIs and the NSDI could be realized in a required quid pro quo exchange of framework data that support the majority of stakeholders’ data requirements. The concept of data stewardship at different levels of government is not new. What is uncommon among current business models is a structuring of a quid pro quo data exchange such that all parties clearly recognize and are responsible for a shared funding model for development and maintenance of Framework data (while uncommon, there are limited examples that demonstrate this can be a successful approach, such as Ohio’s Location Based Response System). I suggest that we are well on our way to such a model as an effective means of developing SSDIs and the NSDI if the National States’ Geographic Information Council’s (NSGIC) Imagery For The Nation (IFTN) program is implemented as proposed. However, if we leave out key aspects of this model up front, namely the unequivocal recognition of a quid pro quo exchange, then we are destined to failure once again.

For example, let us assume the development and maintenance costs of parcel, address and street centerline mapping is roughly equivalent to the development and maintenance costs of orthophotography and elevation mapping (of course exact figures depends on the methods of data acquisition, accuracies, etc.). If state and federal government took on the responsibility for orthophotography and elevation layers, as is proposed by the Imagery For The Nation (IFTN) program, this would offset substantial costs to local government to build and maintain their own geospatial programs. If however, the imagery and elevation are provided in the public domain without explicit and agreed upon recognition of a quid pro quo data exchange, then we face the very real possibility that local governments will not recognize it as such and will not recognize their responsibilities to contribute to the whole. In other words, local governments remain free to use the public domain data without recognizing the cost sharing aspects to their own programs.

Many (I would argue most) will be left to continue to view the external requests for their data as unfunded mandates. Without a clear plan for recognition of a quid pro quo data exchange, thus an equitable cost share in a shared public resource, we will continue to face the same financial, organizational, and political obstacles that we do today. It is not enough to “build it and they will come.” We must be prepared to recognize and agree upon, formally, our shared roles and responsibilities. Indiana is about to embark on a social experiment that would equate to such a quid pro quo data exchange. Under a new GIS statute, Indiana’s Framework data layers are formally defined, as is a provision for “data exchange agreements” meaning an agreement concerning the exchange of any GIS data or framework data.

While political subdivisions maintain the right to control the sale, exchange, and distribution of any GIS data or framework data provided by the political subdivision to the state through a data exchange agreement, a political subdivision may agree, through a provision in a data exchange agreement, to allow the sale, exchange, or distribution of GIS data or framework data provided to the state. As a condition in a data exchange agreement for any GIS data or framework data provided by the state to a political subdivision, the state Geographic Information Officer may require the political subdivision to follow the state GIS data standards and the statewide data integration plan when the political subdivision makes use of the GIS data or framework data as provided by the state. (Note, this does not apply to data that is otherwise required by state or federal law to be provided by a political subdivision to the state or federal government.)

As they have not yet been developed, the details of the data exchange agreements remain to be seen. I would assert that to enable a successful SSDI in Indiana, the data exchange agreements and the statewide data integration plan should explicitly define two important quid pro quo provisions: 1. Assurance that the state will maintain an ongoing high-resolution orthophotography and elevation data program, akin to Indiana’s 2005 successful orthophotography project and the proposed IFTN program (this will require a state funding commitment), that the data will reside in the public domain, and 2. That in exchange for receiving state provided framework data, political subdivisions will provide specific locally maintained framework data (e.g. parcels, addresses, and street centerlines), absent of personal/private information such as land owner names, and that the data be integrated into derivative data sets that reside either in the public domain or under a commercially restricted Creative Commons license (this is a policy issue that should be further reviewed).

I assert that equitable shared funding through a formally defined quid pro quo data exchange would enable SSDIs and the NSDI. This will require revised policies and a clear well-coordinated strategy for implementation (I do not believe it can be implemented piecemeal). There are many other issues to be tackled, including developing data where none currently exist, accessing restricted public data where they do exist (e.g., Census address coordinate data), technical issues related to data integration, etc. Still, financial, organizational, and political constraints have been the most significant obstacles to our success. If we can find ways to overcome these obstacles, the payoffs will be high. If we continue to sidestep these issues in favor of incremental progress on individual data layers, I believe the vision of SSDIs and the NSDI will be difficult, if not impossible, to truly realize.

___________ *Every state is different, and this must be recognized in Statewide Spatial Data Infrastructure business plans (e.g. some states already manage statewide addresses and parcels; some states are currently unprepared to manage statewide orthophotography).

Loss of Free Data Services

Access to free web mapping services has many of us hooked – but what does the future have in store? Here is a recent experience with free going to fee. It leaves me wondering where the industry is heading over the long haul regarding web mapping services, and at what cost. Shortly after September 11th I assisted the (former) Indiana State Emergency Management Agency to set up GIS in their Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The EOC also coordinates mapping efforts with the Indiana National Guard. The programs were set up on limited staff and budgets. For storms, floods, tornadoes and the like, weather data is essential but wasn’t being provided in the needed format (a web map service – WMS) from the National Weather Service.

Luckily we found and pulled the data from their WMS. Over the course of a couple years, I have pointed many professional GIS’ers to this source of free data. I recently learned from my friends at the National Guard that AccuWeather has stopped providing their service for free and now is subscription-based. Don’t get me wrong, I understand and appreciate that this is an industry and businesses are here to make money. I certainly don’t fault AccuWeather for going to a subscription service. However, it leaves us at a loss for an important data source.

With the obvious homeland security implications, and the infrastructure in place, I am left wondering why the National Weather Service isn’t making a free weather WMS a priority. It also leaves me wondering what is in store for us all as we become increasingly reliant on web map services provided by others. WMS is a powerful way for us to leverage geospatial technologies. I’m one among many who are enthusiastic about their potential. However, we need to approach the future with our open eyes. What is the long-term availability, reliability, and cost of this technology? Will we all get hooked and the then the rules change? What will that mean to our projects, and our budgets? I’d love to hear your thoughts (and if you know of another free weather WMS, please pass it on!)

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