NSGIC: An Interview with Incoming President, William Johnson

By Joe Francica

William F.(Bill) Johnson is the incoming National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) president.NSGIC is engaged in a variety of geospatial initiatives between state GIS coordinators and federal agencies.NSGIC seeks also to help at the local level to communicate a vision for how geospatial technology can be used effectively and efficiently. Direction's Editor-in-Chief, Joe Francica interviewed Mr.Johnson about where he thinks NSGIC should focus its attention in 2004.

Joe Francica (JF): As incoming NSGIC president, what do you see as the top 3 priorities for the next year and why?

William Johnson (WJ): My focus for the next year is on fundamentals. First, NSGIC is an association of state GIS Coordinators, so my top priority is to gain the participation of states not currently involved. In any given year, the number of active member states is typically in the upper 30s, although we have 41 member states right now. Our annual conference in Nashville in September attracted representatives from 32 states, which was a very strong turnout considering the tough state budget situations this year. Still, that means that 18 states weren't there, and consequently, the strength of our voice regarding the role of states in the national geospatial issues we discussed in Nashville wasn't quite as strong as it could have been. None of the six New England states were there, for example. I grew up in central Massachusetts and I think I understand the New England culture and the similarities of those six states, so I have a bit of a personal interest in getting them involved in NSGIC.

Beyond the issue of getting more states involved, I also want to increase the involvement and participation of the existing membership. Some of this is as simple as doing a better job of keeping the membership informed about the many events and initiatives happening under NSGIC's leadership. The Board of Directors is very busy yearend, but it seems that some of the activities, or more properly, the opportunity to participate in the activities, hasn't been promoted enough. I hope to improve that. Opportunities to participate can be as simple as reviewing and commenting on proposals taking shape on the national scene. One recent example is the legislation being proposed by the Spatial Technologies Industry Association (STIA). They've reached out to us for comment on their proposed legislation, and that's a great opportunity for NSGIC to review and help shape a national effort to fund geospatial data development. We're also going to implement a "log of activities" this year so our membership can be more aware of the breadth of activities we are pursuing. This idea is already in place in Indiana and North Carolina, and we're hoping that it will spark some additional interest from NSGIC members, as well as offer some compelling evidence of the value we could bring to the states that aren't currently involved.

Finally, but not least significantly, I want to focus our energies on something my colleague Bill Shinar of Virginia calls the "Infrastructure of Coordination." NSGIC recently adopted Guidelines for Coordination of Geographic Information Technology, or the so-called "Model State." (http://www.nsgic.org/hot_topics/model_states/model_states05-03.pdf)

What this lays out is a set of nine criteria and seven measures of success. We believe that states with GI Coordination Councils that meet most or all of the criteria are well-positioned to meet the challenges of coordinating geospatial activities for their states. We could say that those states have the infrastructure for effective coordination. To get a baseline understanding of how well states are doing, we're conducting an on-line survey right now to find out how each of the states rates themselves against those nine criteria. This will provide the first-ever national snapshot of states' geospatial coordination infrastructure.

JF: NSGIC's mission is particularly challenging given the need to communicate it goals in two directions: first to local governments and the second to federal agencies.What do you see as the motivating factor in getting cooperation from all levels of government to help NSGIC succeed? Is it a belief in the need to create NSDI?

WJ: The altruistic belief in the NSDI is not the motivating force that gets things done, in my opinion. People cooperate when they see or anticipate seeing benefits; tangible benefits that help them accomplish their business. Belief in NSDI principles reinforces and helps solidify support that begins with getting the daily job done. At least that's been my experience.

It's not difficult to embrace the notion of a National Spatial Data Infrastructure that will serve our society in a wide variety of beneficial ways, much as the Interstate Highway System does, but it can get very messy sorting out the details of establishing cooperation among disparate participants. Maintaining momentum can be particularly challenging. Champions move on, priorities change, available resources fluctuate, and so on. The fuel to foster cooperation through all of this is communication. You simply have to keep all of the partners "at the table" and make sure you understand what they need in order to succeed. There's no letting up on the work of coordination - it's hard work and it's never done. That's why I believe so strongly in the role of State GI Councils. They fill a critical role in bridging the gap between national initiatives and on-the-ground geospatial activities taking place in state and local governments. We've seen over the past decade a gradual shift from largely federal-state coordination activities at the State GI Councils to a much greater focus on local government coordination. The legacy of coordination with federal entities is still there, and is still very strong, but there is a much greater understanding these days about the importance of building geospatial infrastructure at the local level.

The recent shift in focus we've all experienced since 9/11 is a good example. There seems to be wide recognition that much of the geospatial data needed to protect citizens and critical infrastructure is best obtained from local sources that need, and therefore create and maintain, high-resolution and timely data. On the other hand, there is a substantial effort underway at the federal level to collect this data for use by officials charged with national homeland security responsibilities. This is driving a new level of coordination requirements that span from local to state to federal levels, involving many new stakeholders that may not have previously been involved in geospatial coordination activities. NSGIC is actively helping to ensure that state GI Councils have an appropriate role in this emerging process.

I'd like to make one further distinction. Your question references two directions: local government and federal agencies. I would replace the word federal with national. It's an important distinction. NSGIC certainly has a rich history of working with federal agencies, but we are also interested in other geospatial activities on a national scale that are not federal, including affiliations with other national organizations, issues of professional licensure, and the like.

JF: What kinds of guidelines has NSGIC adopted for local governments to follow so that geospatial data is created for use within the context of NSDI? Are these primarily adopted from FGDC reports or is there something at the state level that you provide to local governments?

WJ: That's fundamentally a state-by-state issue. State GI Councils, with strong representation and involvement of local government, are where many of those decisions are brokered. There's lots of variability across the country on some aspects of geospatial data, and nobody is better positioned to deal with that than the state GI Councils. It's what they're there for. A very timely example is the emerging national requirements for geospatial data to support Homeland Security and critical infrastructure protection. Folks who have been on the geospatial scene for a while easily recognize that much of the data needed for Homeland Security is the same data we've been striving to build for so many other purposes. The Framework data layers (orthoimagery, cadastral, roads/addresses, topography, etc.) underpin virtually all GIS applications.Having timely, accurate, and complete Framework data becomes even more important in the context of potential life and death decisions that may be made with the data in a time of emergency. Homeland Security brings some new faces to the table, as well as a lot of variability in the way states are structured for emergency response. E-911 may be a centralized function in some states, while in New York it's handled at the County level. We need to remember that first responders to any incident are always local. This makes it essential that all levels of emergency responders be working from the same data, and that local government requirements for the data be satisfied if they are to have an incentive to participate in data creation and maintenance activities. This was one of the key lessons we learned from using GIS to respond to the World Trade Center disaster two years ago. All of this is a rather long way of saying that NSGIC's role is to advocate for the State GI Councils, where we believe the issues can most effectively be sorted out with the local, state, and federal stakeholders.

NSGIC is also working with the National Association of Counties (NaCO) and others to make sure that local governments are properly included in the broad NSDI initiative. Our perspective in NSGIC is that state GI Councils cannot reach their full and proper potential without substantial and meaningful involvement of local government. One of the nine characteristics in the "Model State" specifically identifies the need for local government representation on the state GI Council.

I'll give you a couple of examples of the sorts of projects NSGIC has undertaken to help local governments. In 1998, the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) funded NSGIC to conduct the first-ever national survey of framework data available from state and local governments. NSGIC carried out the survey's goal of contacting every county in the US through our network of state contacts. Each state representative distributed and collected the surveys for the counties within their state. The results were enlightening, as it was clear that there was far more money being spent on geospatial data at the local level than at the federal level.

We've also just started a new effort to create a "living inventory" of geospatial resources across the country through an on-line survey mechanism. This will provide a way for policy makers to assess a variety of program ideas based on "what's really out there." It will also help local government folks see how their geospatial efforts measure against other jurisdictions across the country and will let them find points of contact for follow-up actions. We are currently pursuing funding for a Phase 1 requirements analysis, and hope to contract out for development of the application after that.

JF: Not all states have appointed statewide GIS coordinators.Do you feel that in order to accomplish the mission of NSGIC that all states need to fund the appointment of such a position?

WJ: I'm going to rephrase your question slightly. I do believe that the mission of NSGIC requires that every state have a GIS Coordinator, but I don't necessarily believe that it must be a funded position, at least initially. Typically, the coordination activity begins with volunteer participation. Only after a coordination network is operating, even if it's essentially ad hoc, is there an opportunity to pursue more permanent status through an executive order, legislation, or other means. When I look back at what we've been through in New York State over the past 8-10 years, it's clear to me that some of our most energetic and productive activities took place in the early years with all-volunteer participation. We had a groundswell of support among GIS users across the state for creating a coordinating mechanism that resulted in the establishment, in 1996, of a statewide GIS Coordination Program. At first, the job of GIS Coordinator was a part-time activity of one person. Over time, the function grew to full-time status, and dedicated staff have been added to the point where today, we have 20 full-time staff supporting the program. One of the things we've reflected on is the impact of the shift from volunteerism to dedicated staff. There are certainly limits to what can be accomplished with volunteers, but there's also a level of enthusiasm and "esprit de corps" among the wider GIS community that's hard to duplicate when you have a more institutionalized structure.

Ultimately, I believe that states do need a funded coordinator position to keep the process going once a more formal coordination structure has been established. The risk is that it can become too institutionalized and may settle into something that starts to look like just another state bureaucratic process.

JF: You obviously have a full time job in addition to being NSGIC president, and I noticed that New York also appoints a statewide coordinator (http://www.nsgic.org/review/NYprofileNOAAweb.pdf) for GIS as well has having many other geospatial coordinating groups.With so many stakeholders of geospatial information, how are you defining common goals at the state level? How does the work get done and how does the job of a state coordinator get filtered down or up to local and federal agencies, respectively.

WJ: Let me say right away that I really enjoy the job as a statewide coordinator. If you were to look at our organizational chart, you'd see that Bruce Oswald officially wears the hat as New York's GIS Coordinator, but in reality it's a joint effort for Bruce and me together, along with a very strong team in our organization who manage all of the individual projects and activities. I can honestly say that I look forward to going to work every day, and I have been able to see positive results from our efforts. It's a great feeling to be able to say that.

We have a centralized statewide GI Coordination function in New York, and it's perhaps not as fragmented as you might imagine.The agency where I work, the Office of Cyber Security & Critical Infrastructure Coordination, was created in September, 2002. The entire Statewide GIS Coordination Program was transferred to this new organization from the NYS Office for Technology, where it had been hosted previously. The Statewide GIS Coordination Program is guided by our state GI Council, which we have named the NYS GIS Coordinating Body. It consists of a total of 18 representatives from local government, state and federal agencies, academia, not-for-profits, and the private sector. In fact, we just recently revised the representation structure of the Coordinating Body to more closely align with our GIS stakeholder community. Most notable in the revision is an emphasis on local government representation. Our former structure had equal state agency and local government representatives (five each); while the new structure has seven local and four state representatives. We also added two new seats for the not-for-profit sector and one new federal representative.

Operating under the oversight of our Coordinating Body is a range of topic-specific Work Groups. These groups are charged with developing recommendations for consideration by the Coordinating Body. A great example is the high-resolution statewide orthoimagery program we started in 2001. A Work Group was formed with volunteer participation by about 30 people from all sectors. We quickly determined that the new imagery program had to be designed to meet local government requirements in terms of timeliness, accuracy, and resolution. Those requirements were the driver for the overall program design and specifications, which the Coordinating Body endorsed. The Work Group issued a Request for Information (RFI) in 1999 to invite comments from the industry on the proposed program, and then released a Request for Proposals (RFP) in 2000. The state awarded a contract in February, 2001, and we have flown new imagery for a portion of the state every spring since then. Funding participants in our program have included counties, state and federal agencies, and we've also had good international cooperation for imagery covering the Canadian border areas. In 2004 we will begin producing second-round coverage. The orthoimagery program has been very successful for us and serves as a useful reminder that success in these endeavors comes only after fully considering the needs of all parties involved, but especially local government users.

One of the activities we've done every year with our Coordinating Body is to conduct an annual planning meeting. This is an all-day event, held in June, when we convene the members of the Coordinating Body and Chairs of the Work Groups to review the progress of activities from the previous year and develop priorities for the next year. Bruce generally ends the day with a backyard cookout at his house and we then convene a regular meeting of the Coordinating Body the following day. In preparation for the annual planning meeting, we get the word out on our listserve and Clearinghouse to invite input from the GIS community. Some years we've also conducted a survey. The goal is to make our best effort to drive the overall coordination program in the direction needed by our customers, and I think we've done a good job of being responsive to those needs.

JF: Since NSGIC is also a technology group, what do you feel is the current problem with technology utilization by local or state agencies? Does more training need to occur for GIS professionals? Are funds adequate to support training or technology purchases?

WJ: I don't really see NSGIC as a technology group, although there's no argument that GIS is itself a technology. We are much more focused on the policy side of GIS, and working to remove barriers to the wider adoption of the technology. Having said that, I'm inclined to agree with the general sentiment that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to get GIS into the hands of more state and local users. Training is definitely a component of that. I see training as having two main elements, the first of which is outreach. There's just no point in technical training if the leaders of state and local agencies don't understand the potential uses and benefits of GIS. In New York, we've conducted outreach around the state and offered half-day workshops targeted to local government officials with the single goal of raising awareness. This approach has shown itself to be quite effective. As the second element, we can then follow up with other, more detailed training, either through our program, or by maintaining links to GIS training opportunities through community colleges and vendors.

Another thing we've done in our state is to establish a free on-line GIS Help Desk. This provides a way for GIS users who may be working on their own in a local government office, for example, where there isn't a more experienced GIS person who can help with day-to-day questions and problems, to get competent technical help by e-mail within one business day. This has been popular with new users in particular and we've seen a remarkably steady rate of use in the two years we've had it running.

NSGIC has been very valuable over the years for finding out what works and what doesn't work in other states. NSGIC members are very open to sharing their ideas and experiences, so we've all been able to benefit from some of the great progress in other states. I'll freely admit that we have been happy to "steal" good ideas from our colleagues in other states, and hopefully they have benefited from some of the things we've tried in New York.

JF: Is it the job of NSGIC to do more outreach to policy makers and politicians? Does the organization need a stronger voice to lobby for its goals?

WJ: NSGIC certainly does need to conduct outreach to policy makers and politicians as a part of our efforts to influence the shape and direction of federal and national geospatial policy and programs. I tend to avoid the term "lobbying," since it often seems to be associated with political fundraising or influence pedaling, angles from which NSGIC isn't involved at all. We believe we have a very credible voice as an organization, and we're increasingly being sought out for input in national geospatial policy issues. As I mentioned previously, the Spatial Technologies Industry Association asked us earlier this year to review their proposed legislation, and several other examples come to mind. NSGIC was invited to have a representative serve on the GeoSpatial OneStop Board of Directors, and former NSGIC President Rick Miller has been ably fulfilling that role. Gene Trobia, during his term as NSGIC President last year, was invited by Congressman Adam Putnam (R-Florida) to provide Congressional testimony on geospatial technology issues. He gave his testimony in June to the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census as a panelist for the Oversight Hearing on Geospatial Information: Improving our Nation's Map Related Infrastructure. NSGIC has also been actively engaged in the process of revising the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) Model Law for surveying, and we've had many of our members participate in the National GeoData Policy Forums that FGDC hosted several times in past years. That's not a complete list, by any means, but hopefully it will give you a sense of the sorts of policy issues that NSGIC pursues.

JF: What is the bigger challenge: working with local governments to get technology implemented or satisfying federal mandates? NSGIC certainly must feel the pressure at both ends so please feel free to elaborate.

WJ: That's an easy one to answer - working with local governments. We've been struggling in our state for the past five or six years with ways to get to that Holy Grail of having shared enterprise spatial data built from local government sources and maintained as a result of the daily business transactions that take place within local and state agencies. The concept seems simple enough, but creating incentives to make it work without it becoming an additional burden on local governments is not easy. I don't think anyone has yet implemented the model program to do this, but several states are trying hard. There are multiple dimensions to the problem, including geospatial capacity at the local level to take an active role in data development and maintenance, funding (of course!), standards that make the data useful to all of the stakeholders, and perhaps most important, the will to cooperate and make it work. That last part is a heavier lift than many people want to acknowledge. What we're asking local governments to do is to take a gamble that cooperating with other entities in relation to their geospatial data will continue to fulfill their needs. After all, they are the ones whose elected officials are accountable to provide services that depend on GIS. I think for many people it's a lot easier to avoid that risk and simply do what you need on your own.

What we're hoping to try in New York is to pilot a program that will provide a range of incentives to local governments for sharing their data updates. We're in the final phase of completing a new statewide roads and address database that's being built under contract, using a mix of state and local sources. What we want to do next is a pilot with a couple of counties to see what it will take to keep the database up-to-date as they introduce new addresses and subdivisions, etc. We want the data to be reliable enough for emergency services applications, which means that we can't tolerate significant delays. If we can get the kinks worked out in a pilot, we hope to expand the program statewide, and eventually include other data layers like parcels and boundaries. It's an ambitious undertaking, and perhaps I'll be at the undertaker before we succeed!

By the way, I don't mean to be dismissive regarding coordination with federal programs. The big difference from local coordination is that federal programs are often able to proceed whether or not there's a lot of cooperation with a particular state. I'm thinking specifically of examples like updating the Census TIGER database. The Census folks are committing substantial resources to the project and will do their own outreach to local governments if a state GI Council is unable or unwilling to handle that coordination with them. Most of the federal programs that come to mind, like TIGER modernization, The National Map, and GeoSpatial OneStop rely on voluntary participation, so there isn't a mandate, per se. Obviously it's beneficial for a state to have accurate Census data, but the real mandate is directed to the US Census Bureau, not the states.

JF: Where would you like to see NSGIC in five years? What mission should it have accomplished during the period and what factors would hinder or help its objectives?

WJ: I'm eager to see us reach a point where we can have a full-time Executive Director. We're making a good start in that direction this year with the part-time service of Bill Burgess as our "man on the street" in Washington, DC, and we've also had Leslie Wollack working with us on NASA and GeoSpatial OneStop activities for the past two years. It's really valuable to have someone in Washington who can participate in a variety of activities on our behalf. Nobody understands NSGIC issues better than Bill Burgess; he's been heavily involved in many of our activities and has been one of our most active and vocal Board members, so we are really pleased to have him working for us now that he's retiring from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Our hope as an organization is that we can continue to expand our financial base to the point where we can afford a full-time Executive Director, and I really believe it will be possible to reach that goal within five years, or perhaps sooner.

I'd also like to see the role of state GI Councils formalized in more federal and national activities. For example, I'd like to see state GI Councils having a review and sign-off role in federal grants programs that fund geospatial data projects. That could be somewhat difficult today, given that there are still some states without a formal GI Council, but it also means we have an opportunity to leverage programs that need state and local participation to create new or strengthen existing GI Councils. This won't happen on its own, so we need to continue to advocate this and other ideas with the sponsors of these programs. If we keep "beating the drum" on this over the next couple of years as the country formulates its geospatial strategies for homeland security, The National Map, and other initiatives, we can hope and expect to have a more formal and recognized role for state GI Councils five years from now. If we can accomplish that, I'll be quite satisfied.

JF: Thanks very much for your time and very thorough answers.


Biographical Sketch - Bill Johnson

Bill is Manager of Geographic Information and Critical Infrastructure Coordination for the NYS Office of Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure Coordination. Previously, he was Deputy Director of the New York State Center for Geographic Information at the New York State Office for Technology, and Director of Mapping and GIS for the New York State Department of Transportation. Bill has 19 years of experience with GIS in New York State, and has been very active in statewide GIS coordination for many years, including service as a member of state's GIS Coordinating Body and several of the Coordinating Body's working groups. He has also served for five years on the Board of Directors for the National States Geographic Information Council and is their President.

Bill holds a Masters degree in Geography from Michigan State University. He is also a Certified Mapping Scientist, GIS/LIS, by the American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing.


Published Thursday, January 8th, 2004

Written by Joe Francica



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