NSGIC Mid-Year Theme: Communication

By Adena Schutzberg

While I only stayed at the NSGIC Mid-Year in Annapolis, MD for a day and a half, I had a grasp on the theme midway through day one: communication. On the second day, NSGIC President Learon Dalby provided further evidence when he reframed his "Issues Briefing" as an "Opportunities Briefing." The central theme there, I'd argue, was communication. Before recapping some of his points, let me share some of the communication issues/challenges that I saw during the meeting.

Discussions of "Imagery/Transportation/Parcels/Elevation for the Nation" (NSGIC's vision for national level, multipurpose datasets) had to include the caveat that in reality only the first two are "real" in the sense of their being NSGIC documents (in very different states). The others have lives of their own. A national cadastre has been in discussion for many years, so it's easy to hang a "for the nation" on it. "Elevation for the Nation" was apparently built on the idea of NSGIC's "Imagery for the Nation" by the National Research Council. Now, branding is good, but letting branding get out of control can be detrimental. Communication is not only about telling the story but also about owning the brand and maintaining faith in it. It's as much about sharing, and about retaining meaning for the brand. (More on this challenge below.)

I cited this quote from ESRI's Marten Hogeweg: "[To get stimulus money] call your database a databank, and data production facility a factory." I could paraphrase that with a quote from a friend who did a stint in advertising: "You need to talk like they listen." We are still working at that, both in how we sell GIS within our community and most recently how we sell it to the federal government. I had the same conversation at both breakfast and lunch one day that came back to this general sentiment: "It's 2009 and we still can't hold up good numbers about what's spent on GIS/geodata and its ROI." Both of the parties stated that such arguments are the language of business. With those in hand, maybe, my discussants suggested, geospatial would have gotten more play in the stimulus bill.

No one I spoke with at NSGIC had heard of the Agricultural Geospatial Coalition before it was introduced on the first day, including those more attuned to aerial remote sensing than I am. That suggests to me that the group may have wanted to stay under the radar at launch. There may be very good reasons for that. On the other hand, here's a subgroup of geospatial players coming together around a single program. The National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) keeps them in business and the formation of this coalition allows them to speak their minds on Capitol Hill. I think that's great. Clearly, the members didn't feel their needs were being met or their voices heard, and they acted. By doing so, they can communicate with two important constituencies: the geospatial community and Congress, who pays a good deal of their paychecks.

There's quite a lot of "overselling without overselling" in the geospatial world. Many who know about the behind-the-scenes worlds of data collection and integration laugh when non-geo folks talk about Google's imagery being real-time. Google never said it was, but from movies and TV and science fiction, many people not familiar with geo assumed, and still assume, it is at least near real-time. It's not Google's fault. People think this way and frankly, the conclusion certainly makes sense to those who put forward the contention. By the same token, the Governor of Montana assumes since he has a full parcel database for his state online, all other states do, too. He's in the same boat as the folks who assume the imagery is real-time. I'm not sure how we reign in these "ahead of reality" situations, but I'm confident communication is a good start.

Now back to Dalby's "Opportunities Briefing." He highlighted several places where clear communication can help move NSGIC's agenda forward. For one, NSGIC did not author a stimulus proposal, but it did endorse the ones in line with its policy agenda. Another: the many LiDAR specifications, including a new draft one from USGS, could benefit from more communication. Communication could help unite these efforts or at least gather input from different stakeholders. What about the potential confusion on the state of each of the "for the nation" efforts? NSGIC already has a document defining specific criteria for the "for the nation" efforts. Within it are stages of the life cycle of these efforts: concept (proposal), development (initiative) and implementation (program). There'll be a "scorecard" to keep track of where each effort is in the process. Finally, he posed a theoretical (or perhaps not?) idea: What if NSGIC focused its energy on a single, well researched effort, rather than spreading its policy energy on many projects? What if that project was Imagery for the Nation? What if it was funded and tested out and then adopted to be the framework for other "for the nation" efforts?

There are definitely many opportunities, even in these trying times, for both NSGIC and the geospatial technology community to move their agendas forward. Communication, especially with all of the new tools of social media, is a key part of future success...or failure.

Published Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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