Why is the National Spatial Data Infrastructure Important?

March 20, 2019
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Earlier this year, the Coalition of Geospatial Organizations released its second report card of the U.S. National Spatial Data Infrastructure. This series of report cards reflects COGO’s commitment to assess periodically the progress being made on developing the NSDI. Our hope is that these report cards will help highlight the critical importance of the NSDI and build the public’s awareness of it. The national characteristic of these data is important: Many phenomena, whether natural or manmade, don’t respect our administrative boundaries. Natural disasters frequently involve responders from multiple jurisdictions across a wide geography. The 2008 mortgage crisis, which contributed to one of the largest recessions in our history, wasn’t widely anticipated ahead of time because information about land ownership was not (and still is not) easily available nationwide. Such examples exist in every area of endeavor. We can’t work efficiently or effectively together to solve problems, or even manage current situations, while our information is divided into thousands of tiny pieces and spread across the country in ways that make it impossible to share.

As a group, COGO collectively represents almost 200,000 geospatial professionals within the United States and relies upon this network to inform and support its activities. The ink from its first NSDI Report Card, published in 2015, was barely dry when it began planning for the next one, released earlier this year. For this 2018 version, dozens of subject matter experts from the public and private sectors were identified who have specific knowledge about the eight national framework data themes: addresses, land ownership (cadastral), elevation, geodetic control, governmental units, hydrography, orthoimagery, and transportation. Over the course of many months, each of these groups worked to assess the developments and advances within their respective themes and came up with a single letter grade to score the theme for the 2018 NSDI report card. COGO is particularly appreciative of the volunteer editorial and organizational tasks that Scott Freundschuh, the executive director of CaGIS and 2016 COGO president, managed to accomplish with this large project.

An ongoing challenge for the NSDI is that its individual components fall under the stewardship of numerous different federal agencies, some of which are also coordinating and collaborating with state and local departments to receive data. One important federal-level group that monitors the NSDI is the Federal Geographic Data Committee. COGO and members of the FGDC kept in close communication during the production of the 2018 Report Card, and the content of each theme’s assessment had input and constructive criticism by individuals that FGDC recommended.

In this second report card, the NSDI received an overall grade of B-, reflecting some improvements over its 2015 grade of C. As noted in the report card, the assessment measures the NSDI’s ability to meet future geospatial data needs. In the years since the first report card, the FGDC has made important progress in managing the NSDI, while positive activity has continued across all data themes. Establishing performance measures for each of the strategic goals and objectives of the NSDI is one such important action taken. Another is the development of a portfolio management approach for the National Geospatial Data Assets that are considered part of the NSDI.

The NSDI may seem like a large and abstract idea, and in some ways, it is, especially because we are currently far from having it fully implemented. If the NSDI is to be realized, or at least movement made in that direction, having individuals, groups, entities, and legislation to support it will continue to be a necessity. As Assistant Interior Secretary Tim Petty recently noted in an email to COGO leadership, “The assessment recognizes that the NSDI is a work in progress requiring broader levels of engagement, national commitment, and partnership. The Report Card makes important points on the value of the NSDI to the nation, the leadership role of the FGDC, and the fact that a successful and efficient NSDI is a shared national responsibility.”

With the passage of the 2018 Geospatial Data Act, Congress has provided authorization for the existing governance structure that includes FGDC and their official advisory body, the National Geospatial Advisory Committee. The statute also directs federal agencies to work in partnership with local, state, and tribal governments, higher education, and the private sector to develop the NSDI. In addition, Congress now expects federal agencies to report on their geospatial data expenditures every two years. The statutory guidance and interest from Congress, along with stronger engagement of stakeholders represented on NGAC and collaborative involvement at every level should result in better progress on the NSDI going forward.

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