A Single Version of the Truth: Empowering Governments with a Single Mapping Database

By Kenneth Clay

Many state, county and municipal governments are plagued with a fundamental problem which can severely hinder the goals of their individual agencies, interagency collaboration and the overarching mission of protecting and serving the public. The problem is the lack of a single, highly accurate, shared mapping database and subsequent uniform spatial understanding.

At best, the lack of a common mapping database can result in minor inconveniences - duplicate street naming, mailing errors or traffic snarls from insufficient signage. At worst, results can include serious public health hazards, poor emergency response and lapses in environmental protection. When armed with different maps, multiple agencies do not share a common understanding of reality or mode of communication, which can lead to serious operational and policy disconnects.

The key is to develop a single, comprehensive mapping database including all the common information needed by state agencies (as well as counties and municipalities within the state), while supporting the unique data, applications and "language" of each agency. The goal is to develop a uniform understanding of location.

This article will explore:
  • The dilemma of inconsistent mapping;
  • The benefits of a single map in practice;
  • The important elements for developing a single mapping database to support critical GIS applications; and
  • How common mapping data ultimately fuels improved interagency collaboration and supports enhanced security and citizen protection.
All Over the Map: The Dilemma of Inconsistent Mapping
Individual agencies have long developed and relied upon their own mapping databases to support their unique GIS requirements and "languages." Within governments, these varied mapping databases often consist of street-centerline information supplemented with content and extents required by a single agency. What is missing is a way to leverage the information from these collective investments to create an accurate and current database with rich geospatial enhancements. Developing such a database - beginning with shared, current and continuously maintained landbase information - not only reduces the "silos" of information prevalent in government, but can be an important catalyst to supporting a new level of collaboration across agencies, while each continues to serve its individual, unique needs.

For example, environmental and health agencies rely heavily on geocoding - longitudinal/latitudinal coordinates that visually identify spatial locations on a map. Going a step further, public safety departments - which require the highest possible levels of spatial location precision - use a technique known as point-addressing, which leverages an extensive database to pinpoint locations down the level of physical buildings, sites or parcels. Meanwhile, departments of transportation (DOTs) rely on linear reference systems (LRS) for locating and tracking facilities, conditions, activities and incidents (bridges, signage, pavement conditions, pavement markings, road projects and accidents, for example). An LRS uses measures from the start of a street to serve as the location for inventoried items, and relies on exceptional accuracy to ensure that facilities and other inventory are properly placed in relation to other elements (for example, ensuring that signs signaling detours are placed well enough in advance of road projects).

While LRSs have served DOTs from an intra-agency functional perspective, there is significant information within these systems that, if available to other agencies in a single mapping database, could be utilized by all agencies for mutual benefit and greater efficiencies.

Consider, for example, what can happen in the event of an automobile accident. Deferring to its own mapping database supporting LRS language, the DOT may believe the accident in question occurred .375 of a mile up on a particular road centerline vector. While this information may be accurate, it is not necessarily a "findable" location for the police department, which may communicate spatial information via street addresses (Main Street, corner of Lincoln), or the public safety department, which may communicate via more precisely defined point addresses (accident occurred in front of 57 Main Street).

Benefits of a Single Map in Practice
The benefits of a single map can manifest themselves each and every time multiple agencies collaborate for the greater public good. Consider, for example, emergency management and police are often responding to the same event and need to know that they will both find the location for which they are responsible, with superior speed and accuracy. Or, consider forestry and environmental protection agencies which rely heavily on geocoding geographic areas and must often collaborate with departments of transportation to determine if a proposed project could potentially endanger conservation lands.

By pulling together and sharing the important information from all agencies, a single database and common spatial understanding become possible in the government enterprise, and collaboration across departments grows significantly more efficient and beneficial. In addition, agencies can reap significant cost benefits associated with joint collaboration on single maps.

Two Important Elements to Developing a Single Mapping Database
The challenges associated with different agencies communicating in different languages grow even more complex when you consider that data contained in proprietary agency maps may be in various formats, age ranges and qualities of content. Therefore, one agency's spatial understanding of a given street and location may not mirror that of another agency. As agencies are expected to collaborate as integral members of the first responder community and such response requires speed and pinpoint accuracy - lapses in shared location understanding are unacceptable.

This reality paves the way for the first important element in developing a single mapping database.

1) Creating and upholding a statement of quality that is measurable

Quality begins with compiling as much data as possible from only the most reliable of sources, including satellite and aerial images; public data sources (e.g., fire and police); government and other available public or private sources. Because change is constant, compilation must be performed on an ongoing basis, and is critical to maintaining uninterrupted access and ensuring direct data feeds from these sources are updated daily or as often as needed to support the freshest, richest, most accurate data available.

However, it's not enough to simply compile data and constantly update changes. The best set of directions based purely on a map may be insufficient in helping a driver find his or her destination with the greatest ease and accuracy. Navigational nuances such as one-way streets and left-hand exits need to be conveyed for full data comprehension.

Recent advances in data accuracy - including methodologies that supplement the act of compiling with actual driving - are enhancing the precision of spatial data information, while freeing up staff time (and money) to focus on protecting and serving the public. In addition, advances in dataset richness like point-addressing are bringing razor-sharp precision to locational information for mission-critical functions. These developments translate into unparalleled levels of accuracy and quality for digital mapping data.

The mission-critical nature and far-reaching scope of operations like public safety demand a second important element.

2) A plan for maintaining consistent data quality

A single mapping database must be configurable to support the specific database content and quality requirements demanded by the agency or state in question. By working with digital mapping providers, governments can define requisite database content and quality standards, as well as the manner by which government data will be maintained, in order to keep critical information up-to-date and leverage investments in legacy mapping data. In other words, a single mapping database should not "throw the baby out with the bath water," but instead, maintain strong, robust connectivity to existing data and systems.

Setting an Example for Interagency Collaboration
Hurricane Katrina served as a painful reminder of the paramount importance of effective interagency collaboration during times of emergency. On the heels of this disaster, Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend issued a report entitled, "Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned," which emphasized the need to create a "culture of preparedness" through improved collaboration at and across all levels of government.

One year later, individual counties in Gulf Coast states are leveraging new technologies to enhance collaborative capabilities and, subsequently, confidence in their preparedness for large-scale emergencies. Other examples of cross-county and cross-state collaboration include the real-world case of a state police department, which recently developed a database to support wired and wireless emergency callers for the department's incident information management system and dispatch centers. The database includes a seamless extension that adds a one‑county buffer from the adjoining states, critical for cross‑jurisdictional pursuit and hand‑offs, as well as crime analysis and tracking of repeat offenders who may have crossed state or county lines.

Improved interagency collaboration also enables a higher level of public protection against more common public health threats that can transcend county and municipal borders, such as airborne and insect-transmitted illnesses, and pollution. Finally, improved collaboration among transportation departments is the foundation for a reliable, safe national transportation system, a lifeblood of the American economy.

Today, government agencies are in an ideal position to drive improved collaboration and preparedness, laying the foundation for enhanced security and protection for citizens nationwide. Uniform spatial understanding and communication - enabled through a single map database - is an important and necessary first step.

Published Friday, October 27th, 2006

Written by Kenneth Clay

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