USGS in 2007: Moving Forward

By Adena Schutzberg

_The USGS had a significant presence at ESRI's Federal User Group Meeting a few weeks ago in Washington. I was invited to meet with some of both the new and seasoned staffers for an update on that agency. Overall, I'd describe the situation as unsettled, but moving forward.

Bill Carswell is now the director of the National Geospatial Program Office (NGPO), a team that heads up many national initiatives including The National Atlas, The National Map, Geospatial One-Stop, and the FGDC (Federal Geographic Data Committee) Executive Directorate, among others. Bill Carswell is the first director of the office, which was created in 2005. He took the job officially on September 3rd of last year. He has 41 years of federal service, much of it in the water discipline of USGS. That means he's worked with GIS (though he admits it was a while ago) but more importantly, he has experience as a manager and leader. That came through as we spoke. So, too, did the fact that as an "outsider" he brings objectivity to the position. He noted that Karen Siderelis, the USGS associate director of geospatial information and chief information officer, determined this objectivity to be important in his selection.

In exploring the projects that sit under the NGPO, Carswell was impressed at how USGS staffers continued to get work done during the "fluidness" of the last year or so. He pointed to the USGS Geospatial Liaisons, a team of USGS staffers in the field who work on partnerships with state and local players, as a growing team. Its current 35 staffers will be joined by six others in the coming months. That covers "most" states; some large states like California may have two liaisons. I know that the state coordinators I met at the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) could not say enough good things about their respective USGS liaisons.

National Geospatial Technical Operations Center
The exact future of the National Geospatial Technical Operations Center (NGTOC) is still up in the air. Recall that Denver was selected to be the single center while other centers were to be closed. But after much deliberation it was determined that both Denver and Rolla, Missouri would, along with the private sector, compete in an "A-76" for the contract to perform NGTOC work. Comments on the NGTOC Performance Work Statement (a draft, upon which comments were made, is online) are in review (comment period closed on January 12). The final solicitation will be put out for proposals soon. The final decision on the contract is expected before the end of this fiscal year, September 30, 2007.

_Geospatial Line of Business
Ivan Deloatch, the staff director at FGDC, has most recently been tapped to lead the effort on the Geospatial Line of Business (LOB). He represents the Department of the Interior as managing partner for this Office of Management and Budget initiative.

The idea is to run the federal geospatial efforts like a business. Six other areas in government have already undergone the LOB ï¿1⁄2process.ï¿1⁄2 The FGDC Future Directions work done in the last few years was the source for several themes that underlie the LOB, all of which deal with strong leadership of programs and a wide ranging geospatial council including a variety of stakeholders. The outcome of the work to date will be a Common Solutions/Target Architecture (CS/TA) which will be public after the president releases the budget in February, and a fiscal year 2008 business case. The solutions framework includes a triangle of related efforts: enhanced governance, optimization and standardization, and planning and investment strategy. In 2008 the focus will be on enhanced governance.

_The National Atlas
The National Atlas, headed up by Jay Donnelly, is wildly successful. Consider that it:
  • produced 24 million maps last year and responds to 42 million requests per month
  • offers simple-to-find-and-create maps for students, educators and professionals
  • provides data downloads for professionals (including complete FGDC metadata)
  • sports an easy-to-use website that makes many other map websites pale in comparison
  • jumped from supporting eight layers of data at launch in 1997 to more than 1,500 on its 10th birthday this year
  • goes beyond its many maps (printable page maps, wall maps and interactive maps) to include data, articles, video and more to describe the nation
  • boasts an agreement with Mexico and Canada to integrate those countriesï¿1⁄2 data at the same scale
  • includes data from 24 federal agencies
Donnelly's excitement in showing off the site lapsed only when he noted that his team of a dozen, who were until last week based at the USGS office in Reston, Virginia, had left or taken new USGS positions as a result of the latest restructuring. He intends to continue the Atlas success with staff based in Denver and Rolla, Missouri, along with his federal agency partners.

I can't say enough about the interface of the Atlas (neither, as I understand it, could the new company in charge of redoing the USGS website). It's elegant and includes great 'regular person' language. I particularly like the 'What this map shows' descriptions. Also noteworthy, time-based data include not just a 'play' button to see the animation but a manual timeline that can be moused-over by the user to create the right speed. I suspect we 'GIS professionals' spend little time looking at The National Atlas, but we should. It offers some 'best practices' learned the hard way, by listening to user feedback. Just one story from Donnelly: the challenge of naming the 'identify' tool. For now it's called "identify" but at one time was called 'What's this?,' which didn't work out. The Atlas also shows best practices in forming relationships with other countries for GSDI-like agreements. Donnelly reported that it all started with handshakes which grew into written agreements.

Clear, jargon-free explanations at the National Atlas help visitors find what they need, in this case an automated or "play at your speed" animation of the spread of zebra mussels. (Click for larger image)

Geospatial One-Stop (GOS) and The National Map

Carl Zulick is the new deputy for Geospatial Information Integration and Analysis (GIIA) located in the National Geospatial Program Office. He was formerly with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and he stepped into the job back in September. I met him at NSGIC when he had been on the job for just days. Last week, he reported he'd met with his team and partner agencies and learned about what they do and how that work fits with other programs. He laughed when he noted he had to have a bigger white board installed in his office to keep track!

_Zulick wants to invigorate The National Map by working with Department of Homeland Security, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and other federal agencies, the states, counties and others. There are plans in motion to modernize the technology and move to an "extract, transform, load" (ETL) process. He pointed out that The National Map may in time provide access to more than the eight base layers.

Zulick reiterated the vision heï¿1⁄2d shared with me last fall for an integrated portal for The National Atlas, GOS and The National Map. The portal would help get users to the appropriate 'channel' for their needs. I asked Zulick to comment on how the entry of Google, Microsoft and others into the Web mapping space changes what his team does. First, he noted that many of these offerings "use our data!" That, he said, validates USGS work. Second, he pointed out that the speed at which these sites offer data has provided a nice push to upgrade performance of NGPO offerings, including The National Map. Finally, he acknowledged that the USGS and others can learn from the technology behind these commercial offerings, for example using the idea of pre-rendered tiles.

_Zulick's colleague, Rob Dollison, who focuses on GOS, shared some statistics. The website's Marketplace (that's where agencies post what data they plan to gather or would like to gather, to encourage partnerships and reduce duplication) grew from 500 entries to more than 2,000 in 2006. The number of metadata records jumped from 81,000 to 123,000 records in 2006.

New releases of GOS are in the works. Three new releases (2.1, 2.2 and 2.3) are expected in the coming year. Among the updates:
  • better feedback and reports to publishers on their harvesting, metadata and data use
  • making publishing easier
  • improving quality control
  • search enhancements - adding spatial relevance (best geographic fit between your search area and the dataï¿1⁄2s coverage footprint ), export results to spreadsheets, the ability to search GOS from other apps (like toolbars in ArcGIS, ArcGIS Explorer)
  • viewer - support for more OGC services, 3D coming (think ArcGIS Explorer)
Two other tidbits regarding GOS caught my attention. I was pleased to run into Sam Wear of Westchester County, New York at the USGS booth. He and Edith Konopka, of the NJ Office of Information Technology, are drawing on their experience in local and state government to provide key input to GOS via Interagency Personnel Agreements (IPAs). Dollison also noted an agreement with the Naval Research Laboratory to make non-OGC services OGC compliant for use in GOS.

Other Programs
While these projects noted above impact many federal and non-federal users in the United States, a few other, lesser-known projects fall under the NGPO. The new Center of Excellence for GIScience, a research team, is to be headed up by Stephen Guptill. The Center has asked the National Academy of Sciences to validate its research activities and provide guidance on future directions. Also a team has been established specifically geared to emergency response aimed at providing data and resources in times of disasters like hurricanes.

Published Friday, January 26th, 2007

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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