NSGIC MidYear Wrap Up: Frustration in Annapolis

By Adena Schutzberg

I usually leave the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) meetings feeling uplifted about the state of geospatial, or at least optimistic that the organization and its partner organizations are making solid progress toward a better state of affairs. This year I left feeling frustrated, though I can't say that any specific item on the agenda put me over the edge. I think it was the sum total of the two days I spent in Annapolis that colored my trip gray, rather than the sunny orange with which I'm more familiar.

While I was pleased to finally hear from the tech side of Maryland's StatStat project rather than from Governor O'Malley, I came away with more questions than answers. Why had the team decided on the Flex platform before the app was built? How was it that there were no stats on citizen use of the public map portals? And, why did this portal, being held up as best practice, use Excel spreadsheets, converted to XML, to put the data on the map? Even more frustrating: I had lunch with an attendee involved in a geo-related agency who lived in Maryland. That person was not aware of the app before the meeting. It could be a fluke, but is it possible that the nation knows more about this effort than the citizens of Maryland?

Bill Burgess set the tone for the "for the Nation" panel by noting that efforts thus far had not been "the revolutionary charge we hoped for." The downturn in the economy and perhaps the involvement of too many agencies slowed progress for Imagery for the Nation. Elevation for the Nation is still in a concept phase. Transportation for the Nation, reported DOT GIO Steve Lewis, suffered from "everything that could wrong, going wrong." That said, he reported some of the best news: a contract was signed to do a strategic plan for the project. A day after this discussion, MAPPS put out a press release noting, "A bill to authorize the program known within the geospatial community as ‘Imagery for the Nation' is being presented for introduction in Congress." MAPPS is calling it the "Making America Prosperous Act, or MAP Act." It's not clear to me how that plan of attack is coordinated with NSGIC, which also frustrates me.

The writing seems to be on the wall that DHS's Command, Control and Interoperability (CCI) department's research project into Virtual USA may be the next generation of that department's tools to share resources with state and local governments. That said, we heard repeatedly from Marc Caplan that CCI is not an operational organization and this is just in the research phase. But many attendees were concerned when Caplan, relatively new to the job, made clear he was not familiar with DHS data efforts such as HSIP, currently underway, and how they relate to Virtual USA. (More than one person realized that we should have asked the more seasoned DHS staffer who visited the following day to help us explore that question. That was not done.)

That very first day prompted the first of many questions that essentially boiled down to: "What do you plan to do about the cuts at USGS which are thinning out the very important liaisons?" While everyone indicated the value of these "field USGS data connections," no one, up to and including DOI GIO Karen Siderelis, had much to say. I was pleased to see my state USGS liaison in attendance (description of that program, list of current liaisons, pdf), but only because of an NSDI grant. My state (Massachusetts) coordinator (that's the term NSGIC uses for the lead member from a state, typically a GIO or head of the state GIS program, list (pdf)) was in attendance, too, because of a federal grant on which he's working. I suspect all state coordinators are having heartburn thinking about how they or their neighboring states will operate without the liaisons. There was a hint about a letter that COGO is drafting on the matter. While I was pleased to hear about this, I'm not optimistic about it changing the situation.

Other frustrations:
When an attendee asked about suggestions for standard data layers for Homeland Security Common Operating Picture (COP) and symbolization, she got a limited answer including a discussion of how past efforts to create standard (ANSI) symbol sets had not had uptake. There's a study underway on why and how to do better in the future.

A longstanding concern about making Census address data available outside the bureau received a respectful, but inconclusive answer.

The confirmation that there is not a valuable dataset to track climate change within the federal government made everyone shift in their seats.

The idea that having three agency GIOs sitting at the same table might be a unique situation made several people grumble, even as they further grumbled how "stove pipey" the existing solutions are.

Just a few sessions left me feeling, if not confident, at least calm. The news that former California GIO Michael Byrne has moved east to be the GIO for FCC lifted my spirits, as he's received lots of positive feedback after his nearly 20 years in GIS in the Golden State. So did the frank and very practical responses of Anne Neville of NTIA on the Broadband Mapping efforts. I think many people cheered silently as Byrne spoke of a "speed test" website from FCC to be used as a tool to collect VGI. I suspect a similar cheer occurred when Neville admitted she didn't have all the answers and made it clear that those collecting data should consider the data they think will be valuable in their states when in doubt. The tag team pair from the Congressional Research Service, Paul Schirle and Jan Johansson, gave us not only a peek into what they do and how they do it (and how scary hard their jobs are!), but also a key insight into how we can tell our Congressmembers about how their jobs are enhanced by geospatial data and analysis, probably on a daily basis.

What I conclude from these few days is not that the geospatial communities at the federal or state level or within the two organizations represented (NSGIC and MAPPS) are failures. I conclude that there are more geospatial pieces than ever that state and federal government and private industry must coordinate and track as geospatial becomes more pervasive in our world. That fact, along with my frustration, ironically, is a measure of the geospatial community's success in spreading the word about the value of our data and technology.

Published Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Written by Adena Schutzberg

Published in


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