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White House to tie together mapping and data sites

The White House has contracted with a major developer of mapping software to merge a federal website that publishes geospatial information with Data.gov, the government's depot for downloadable data sets, the company's president said on Thursday.

California-based ESRI began last summer tying Data.gov to Geodata.gov, the geospatial information gateway, said company President Jack Dangermond in an interview with Nextgov.

He said he expects Geodata.gov's map services, which enable Web-based applications from different sources to communicate with each other, to be available on Data.gov within two months. When the synchronization is complete, the new content on Data.gov will benefit not only Web developers who mix government data with outside data sources to find trends, but also nontechnical individuals. Anyone will be able to create mashups on the free website ArcGIS.com, which ESRI launched on Saturday. Mashups are combined sets of statistics or information that typically are presented in the form of a map or chart to illustrate relationships.

The site already allows anyone to search for graphic layers of information from data sets ESRI retrieved from federal GIS databases. Visitors then can add the layers to a base map, or a background map, to complete the picture. ESRI, which makes money by licensing software for managing and publishing geographic information, is offering the site free of advertisements and does not claim ownership of any content that people and agencies contribute, Dangermond said.

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who is responsible for Data.gov, told Dangermond "to make sure your private sector investments help us leverage government expressions of data," Dangermond recalls. He declined to disclose the cost to the company, but said it is in the range of tens of millions of dollars and involved three and a half years of work. "We can afford to do it through our software licenses," he added.

Users can share their work with a defined group of people, sell their creations on their own websites or share them with the public to let others enhance them. For example, individuals with little or no programming skills can use ArcGIS.com to see how the oil spill could affect livelihoods along the Gulf Coast.

A user could click on the area of the map where the he or she wants to visualize a trend. In this case, the visitor might want to click on Texas. The person then would search a library of map services for the word "oil," which would pull up a list of several relevant items, such as a color-coded layer indicating the Gulf Coast area's proportion of revenue from fishing and seafood, as well as a layer representing the unemployment rate for March. The person would then choose from an array of base maps, including street and topographical maps, for the backdrop of the mashup. The resulting image would allow the user to view the communities that are most dependent on the Gulf Coast waters for income and the areas that were experiencing high unemployment before the disaster occurred.

The site is in beta mode so some of the content does not list the source of the material, as was the case with the two data sets as of Friday.

The tool is an example of what President Obama would like to see agencies pursue under his open government initiative. A day after taking office, he issued a memo that called on federal managers to use new technologies to foster transparency, collaboration with industry and governments, and public participation. With ArcGIS.com, state and federal agencies allow ESRI to tap geographic information stored in government databases, encouraging collaboration. The site invites the public to participate in the process by allowing people to save in a gallery any map they create so others can view it, by generating links to their maps, and by adding data, or metadata, to data sets based on personal knowledge they may have about a subject. The mashups also provide transparency.

ESRI won a contract in 2004 to build and host Geodata.gov and last summer began informally helping the White House move thousands of geographic data sets from the site to Data.gov so users could extract and manipulate basic maps. Earlier this year, the government paid ESRI about $50,000, as an add-on to the Geodata.com contract, to accelerate integration of the two sites, including the map services.

Dangermond's plans for ArcGIS.com include collecting more source material from the federal government and citizens. "One of the big things is going to be more and more content: It's not just any data," he said. "What we want is ready-to-use maps."

Almost every federal agency has an enterprise license with ESRI but producing map services takes time, he said.

ArcGIS.com also can serve the government, company officials said. "Events happen and events happen across jurisdictions and you have to respond very quickly," said Bernard Szukalski, ESRI senior product manager. "This provides a framework for situational awareness."

Dangermond added, "The feds have data that they'll share back and forth. But what about the local data? The parcel data? Nobody knows who owns the property.

"Being able to bring in the map of local properties so it can be overlaid on top of the flood map" is something a government decisionmaker might want to be able to do in a hurry, he added.

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