NSDI’s ability to meet future needs “at risk”

March 11, 2015

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The ability of the U.S. National Spatial Data Infrastructure to meet future needs is at risk, according to the recently released Report Card on the U. S. National Spatial Data InfrastructureThe report card officially awarded the NSDI a D in the Future Need category, and its other grades weren’t much better. In fact, the NSDI earned an average of a C for its individual data categories, and a C- across seven other overview categories, indicating that the entire infrastructure “needs attention.” The panel assigned letter grades using a scale modeled after that which the American Society of Civil Engineers uses in its own regular assessment of national infrastructure: A, meaning Fit for the Future, through F, Unfit for Purpose.

Led by former Wyoming Governor James E. Geringer, the report card is the product of a 7-member “expert panel” that worked on this project since early 2014. To set their standards for evaluation they returned to the original goals and intent of the NSDI, an executive order first initiated by President Bill Clinton in 1994. As the report states: “The cornerstone of the (NSDI) program is a common digital base map that would aggregate the best representations of fundamental data from all levels of government. These Framework data layers are intended to serve as the unified foundation upon which all other geographic information could be created and shared. By maintaining a standardized, high-quality series of Framework data, the NSDI would provide access to reliable, current data from all of the above partners, not just federal agencies. This would minimize duplication of effort and promote the use of the most complete and reliable information.”

The report cardorganized at the request of the Coalition of Geospatial Organizations (COGO), focused on the framework of seven key data layers: cadastral, elevation, geodetic control, governmental units, hydrography, orthoimagery and transportation. Together, these comprise a backbone of information that enables many maps and geospatial analyses. Each layer was defined, considered in its context of relevant standards, and assessed for how complete and accessible it is.  Lastly, the “authority, governance, and management” component reviewed the continued development, leadership and coordination of the layer.

Designers of the original NSDI initiative recognized the need for unified coordination amongst stakeholders, aiming to reduce duplicative efforts and produce one commonly shared, exemplary set of digital products. So while the seven different data layers are a central part of the NSDI Framework, the report card also evaluated the progress of the collaborative efforts overall. In the two decades since the Framework was proposed, are there robust and effective procedures, technologies and guidelines in place to enable efficient integration and sharing of data? Have institutional relationships and business practices been developed that encourage not only the widespread use of the data, but its revisions and maintenance?

To help answer these questions, seven different overview categories were also considered: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public use, and resilience. The individual data layers may comprise the backbone of the NSDI Framework, but these other categories make the Framework a whole and functioning body.  “Future Need” earned an ignoble D, meaning “at risk.” But wait, you say, our Future Need is great! It’s tremendous and expanding! Future Need has never been greater! No, unfortunately what earned the D is the measured estimation of our being able to meet that Future Need, which, according to this report, is “at risk.”

Overall, this expert panel gave an average grade of C to the seven data layers, and an average of C- to the seven overview categories, unambiguously indicating that all of these areas need attention.  

A call to action

This NSDI report card is a prime example of constructive criticism put forth for the good of us all. There was no punitive intent on the part of the panel, and no one need be put on the defensive due to their conclusions. Instead, this is both a wake-up call and a call to action. This report should aid the administration, federal agencies, and Congress in setting priorities, and it highlights the oft-overlooked NSDI mandate for coordination and collaboration. Their concluding recommendations reaffirm the original, sound premise of the Framework while acknowledging the need to engage with additional stakeholders and consider new forms of data curation and governance. The Report Card was not designed to be a step-by-step road map for how to reach the elusive NSDI Framework goal, but it does serve as a very helpful point in the right direction by a group of knowledgeable locals familiar with the setting.

In addition to former Governor Geringer, panel members included John D. Bossler, David J. Cowen, Susan C. Lambert, John Moeller, Tom Rust and Robert Welch. Their biographical information can be found in the report card.

Established officially in 2007, COGO is comprised of thirteen lead geospatial organizations, including professional societies, trade associations, and membership organizations, with a mutual concern for national matters such as the NSDI. Organizing such efforts as this Report Card is one of the tasks that COGO will continue to take on in the future. As a matter of full disclosure, I serve as the executive director of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS), a member of COGO.


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