The 2014 NSGIC Annual Conference: States are Focusing on Coordination, Actions and Technology Solutions

October 9, 2014

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The National States Geographic Information Council ( held its annual meeting in historic Charleston, South Carolina on September 14 -18, 2014. This was one of the finest NSGIC conferences in many years. Each of the presentations provided fresh content and information about the issues, concerns and activities that support states’ ongoing efforts to coordinate effective government solutions through geospatial technology.

A high note for this conference was the observation that open source projects are significantly impacting statewide programs. Open source solutions allow users to tackle old problems and gain efficiencies. In GIS, projects tend to be mired in financial limitations and political setbacks. Over the years, GIS users have found that they have the capabilities and power to extend the value and impact of data through open technology solutions. If the data are accessible, the results are astounding.

Opening remarks from Dr. David Cowen, Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, set the stage for the conference. He demonstrated the challenges of developing a framework for nationwide cadastral data. He provided a history of GIS systems and spatial policy, each period showing promise and opportunity, but lacking in overall success as we struggle to develop state and national geographic information systems. Simple coordination efforts and partnerships continue to shine through the challenges and demonstrate the effectiveness of data sharing. There is an obvious “get ‘erdone” mentality among effective programs. Many of the success stories presented at the conference showed that waiting for federal policy to support a national spatial data infrastructure was unnecessary because the data and the efforts to maintain authoritative data start at the local level. States help to facilitate the aggregation of data by supporting data standards, policy and manageable partnerships. The result is the delivery of local data to the state, then to the federal level, reducing the many points of contact and streamlining the delivery of information to stakeholders.

Cowen also set the stage by talking about the effectiveness of “truthiness,” a word coined by comedian Stephen Colbert and adopted in the pop culture lexicon. “Truthiness,” according to Colbert, is what we feel is true and want to be true but may not be the truth. The definition rang clear in the many conversations throughout the conference.

Conference presenters encouraged attendees not wait around for a program to develop, but to use what resources they have to get the job done and identify the truthiness of impractical practices. Participants were encouraged to collectively take a step back and look at what is really happening. The presenters pointed out the true measures of effectiveness.  The conference archive, which provides access to the presentations, is now online.

My Take

Here are a few of the presentation highlights:

Juan Marin, chief technology officer at Boundless, discussed the prevailing surge, effectiveness and affordability of open source technology as adopted by key players like the White House, NYSE and two principal Internet giants, Google and Amazon. Federal and state government institutions are seeing the benefits as the open source platforms become highly competitive to the commercial products in everything from data collection to publishing and sharing. Marin reminded us that “spatial data is still data” and a part of the overall IT culture. His breakthrough quote was often repeated by speakers at the conference: “Don’t fight the Web. You will lose.” It’s much easier to find effective solutions and ROI though community development when open and transparent services are generated.

Nathan Lowery, GIS outreach coordinator of Colorado, demonstrated the truthiness of automated address dataset processing. While receiving data for 98.8% of the Colorado population, this dataset showed the need for coordination and standards so that address data are ready and effective. Without data aligned to standards, generating a statewide address dataset took approximately eight months to complete. The diversity of local solutions continues to maintain complexity in the dataset. Address data continued to be a resounding theme at the conference.

Tony Davis, senior GIS analyst of Arkansas, presented a method of using open source machine reading tools to geographically reference text. His procedure scans text from legislation and looks for geographic names of well-known places from which he can effectively geocode or map to related geometry. The project utilized open source programs to parse and index the data against authoritative geographic data. The resulting data, exported in XML, provided a collection of GeoJSON features that could be queried and mapped. The maps effectively displayed the scope and reach of the legislation, and in some cases showed the gaps or excesses of the bill.

Open data and geospatial portals filled a number of presentations delivering both content and data in new ways that increase overall accessibility and help drive collaboration. While there are a number of commercial portal platforms available, open source portals received high marks. They demonstrated flexibility and federated structures that support the use of many systems and programs; they remained data neutral and platform agnostic.

U.S. DOT geographic information officer Steve Lewis updated attendees on the Highway Performance Monitoring System (HPMS) program, which rolls up all public road, linear referencing and divided highway data to develop Transportation for the Nation. Little more than half of all states completed their first All Roads Network of Linear Referenced Data (ARNOLD) submissions in June of 2014. U.S. DOT continues to move forward with efforts to support a national address database that is free and accessible to the public. Currently, states can volunteer address information as a part of the transportation updates. Address information falls under Next Generation 911 (NG911) of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Next Generation 911 presentations focused on the collection of effective statewide address databases and centerline networks that are critical in providing location-based emergency response systems. Each presentation showed the sizable collaboration efforts needed to keep data up-to-date and responsive for saving lives.

The South Carolina Medicaid Policy research office at the University of South Carolina demonstrated the benefits of compiling a statewide address database. Addressing statistics showed measurable geocoding improvements with point address data and results improved from an average 80% match to nearly 97% match over a two-year effort.

Presentations from state leaders drove home the message that working together with respect and support for collaborative geospatial programs pays off. The message was clear. If we start with simple questions, ask nicely, use what we have, give credit to those who contribute, and consistently give back to the community, then we can achieve great success. They demonstrated that actions speak louder than words and by establishing great partnerships, geospatial data can roll up to a national framework, regardless of top-down policies. Geospatial policies are effective guidelines but are limited when enacted from an oversight program. They become highly effective when adopted by the local communities where geospatial data are part of local knowledge and support daily activities.

What transects the geospatial community and the lives of so many individuals is that we need to know who, what, where, why and how. Geospatial technology provides answers to the many fundamental questions about how we live. Open data provides transparency and a common framework for knowledge in the larger information technology ecosystem.  

The change in perspective is that GIS is an enabling technology. It is a part of big data and is not disabled by the overreaching programs, policy and funding issues. Don’t fight the Web and don’t fight the open community because these are the resources that make geospatial projects effective and dynamic. Many of the principal data layers that are closed, increasingly out of date, costly and cumbersome are being superseded by a flood of open information systems, which fill the void when an authoritative public dataset is not available. The community will use the best available data source, regardless.

The next NSGIC annual conference is planned for October 4-8, 2015 in Kansas City Missouri. The conference is open to all participants and is not limited to state members. We greatly anticipate what the next conference will bring; the topics will likely continue to be community-driven.


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