NSGIC: Champion of All Causes Geospatial

By Joe Francica

As both a practitioner and journalist for geospatial technology, I attend many conferences during the year.Some, I wonder why they still survive. That was not the case with the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC), held in Nashville last week.Now here is a group of GIS professionals who have an incredibly important mission and whose job could only be done by "burning the candle at both ends." There may be no other professional group whose goal of coordination and technical 'advisorship' has a greater impact on how geospatial information is shared with the public.

NSGIC is a coordinating body of state employees responsible for the management of statewide geographic information between the states and the federal government.At the state level, a GIS coordinator must "harmonize" goals with not only disparate state agencies, but also with local municipalities, counties and other entities.At the federal level, their job is to synchronize their needs with the objectives of those provided by federal agencies that must report to congressional leaders.Already, you have to wonder if these people sleep at night.In other words, they are the conduits for communicating information about the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI).No small task.

The single most important statement I heard this year at the meeting, and one that I am sure is repeated often, is that "all data is local." Collected by city or county employees, street centerlines, utility infrastructure, right of ways, parcel maps and myriad other land-based data that form the underpinnings of our national spatial database.And herein lies the problem.

As you would suspect, there is great disparity among the level of funding for capturing and maintaining spatial data at the local level.Rural counties cannot always afford the investment in GIS.Programs sponsored by GIS vendors and managed through the National Association of Counties (NACo), for example, have tried to lessen the burden.

At the state level, the cooperation among different departments, not to mention interoperability challenges due to a heterogeneous mix of GIS platforms, can be non-existent.Hence, the information flow from the local to the state level can be inconsistent, if not incomplete.And if the state doesn't have its act together, the coordination with federal agencies becomes that much more troublesome.

In my own home state of Alabama, the initiatives to continue development of a statewide clearinghouse and establishment of a coordinating committee for GIS came to a screeching halt after the gubernatorial election in November 2002 that saw a change in administration.Bring this problem down to the local level and you can begin to appreciate the challenges of priorities, funding, management, and securing a GIS "champion" to keep the fires burning for any length of time.

To mitigate some of the problems, states like Tennessee have instigated a cost-sharing program with counties to help fund training, software purchases, and the collection of data.Some counties were at first reluctant to fund the project but eventually saw the cost-benefit.Now instead of sending paper maps with hand-drawn edits to Nashville, they send a CD, which allows the state to fulfill its mandate.

In the "roll call of states" during the conference, you can begin to appreciate the level of disparity among GIS deployment.While some states like North Carolina, New York, Arkansas and Indiana, appear to be light years ahead in coordinating statewide efforts, others lag.Enter the federal government.

Currently the initiatives in Homeland Security are driving many programs at the federal level to secure spatial information.Where does that information come from? Local governments, of course, who have issues of priorities, funding, management, ...It would be easy to point out the problems, but the work being done by NSGIC and federal initiatives like The National Map and the Geospatial One-Stop serve to illustrate the success of state-federal cooperation.

And that brings us back to the conference.I see this weeklong meeting as vitally important to the continued efforts of getting more information to the public.The business of government inherently relies on spatial information and NSGIC sits squarely in the middle of coordinating the flow of data.

Published Thursday, September 25th, 2003

Written by Joe Francica

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