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Government geoplatform to launch by October

When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and began gushing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, mapping divisions at the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and numerous other agencies all had a stake in providing timely, accurate information.

Each division was building those maps inside its own servers, however, and there was no single place where they shared all their mapping data, EPA Geospatial Information Officer Jerry Johnston told Nextgov. Often geographic information systems leaders had to call or email each other to see if someone else already had built a map they could use, or to offer up a map they'd built.

The Deepwater spill was a major impetus for Geoplatform.gov, a governmentwide GIS portal that will allow federal agencies to share maps in an easily searchable format across government and with the public.

An early version of Geoplatform.gov is up now, housed inside a General Services Administration-owned computer cloud that hosts the government data set repository Data.gov. A final version should be available around October, said Johnston, who is a member of the executive steering committee of the Federal Geographic Data Committee and is leading a crossagency team that is developing the initial version of the geospatial platform.

Johnston envisions the site as a "governmentwide one-stop shop for access to . . . trusted and nationally consistent geographic data and services."

For agencies, the site will offer a full slate of searchable maps built with authoritative government data, including a trove of metadata describing the maps' origin and level of detail. That means GIS professionals in one agency could rely on another agency's maps rather than build their own. Other times they'll be able to tweak a map -- what Johnston describes as adding a data layer -- without duplicating underlying data.

Agencies have a variety of sharing options for maps within the geoplatform system, including totally public, government only, within an agency or to a specific set of users.

The site also will give private sector and nonprofit Web and mobile developers a single access point for government data sets. The investment community, for instance, often sifts through EPA data about toxins releases and enforcement to determine which companies present the most environmentally friendly investments, Johnston said.

"The data will be available instantly over Web services, so people can bring the content into their own GIS systems and build applications with it," Johnston said. "They'll be able to do a lot of things with the data instantly."

The geoplatform essentially is run on a modified in-house version of ArcGIS Online, a cloud-based mapping system the GIS company Esri is in the process of launching to federal agencies, companies and the public.

Many federal agencies have software licensing agreements with Esri so they already are using ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS, its server-based predecessor. Geoplatform.gov will allow agencies that use other mapping software to view and manipulate maps inside the platform and to pull them into their own in-house systems, Johnston said.

The fact that the geoplatform is housed in a GSA cloud rather than the public Amazon cloud that houses ArcGIS Online makes it a better fit for agencies concerned about security.

Cloud hosting is also a boon to mapmakers, Johnston said, because they don't have to worry about building capacity for especially popular maps.

An annual EPA map detailing the agency's enforcement activities, for instance, tends to spark a huge amount of Web views when it's first released, he said, as scholars and environmentalists pore through the data and as media reports link to the map. Those views decline significantly after a few weeks, he said.

In the past, Johnston had to build extra capacity into his servers to handle those first few weeks of traffic. Now, he can simply rely on the cloud to scale up and down as demand for the map changes.

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