Industry seeks federal partnership

Industry is aiming to pressure government to work with it on standards for digital mapping technology, a move that would go a long way toward tying together the estimated $5 billion worth of geospatial data the government generates every year. Corporations and industry consultants recently formed a

Industry is aiming to pressure government to work with it on standards for digital mapping technology, a move that would go a long way toward tying together the estimated $5 billion worth of geospatial data the government generates every year.

Corporations and industry consultants recently formed a group that will try to convince Congress and agencies to write language into legislation and procurement regulations that will encourage agencies to begin the standards work, although they stress that government should not itself set standards.

'Dramatic Need'

Officials with the Interoperability Advisory Group (AIG), which has an initial membership of about 15 corporations and consulting firms specializing in geographic information systems (GIS), said they only want to educate congressional members, their staffs and agencies about "the dramatic need" for tying GIS databases together.

In that way, they believe, more off-the-shelf equipment could be used, and GIS technology prices would drop, allowing agencies to tap into the potential power of GIS in setting policies.

Legislation would be influenced by inserting language into appropriations bills, committee reports and procurement regulations that would encourage agencies buying GIS equipment and software to consider standards and work with industry to find solutions.

"We felt there was a crying need to educate policy-makers and legislators on what it means to the GIS industry, the nation and vertical markets like agriculture to have interoperability" between isolated GIS systems, said Fred Corale, AIG's organ-izer and a partner with the Washington, D.C., consulting firm Potomac Research Group.

The lack of standards is seen as hampering the effective use of digital mapping technologies in the budding GIS industry, and that prohibits users from collecting and disseminating complementary geospatial data that resides in numerous databases.

The government - which produces an estimated $10 billion worth of geospatial data a year, half of which is classified - manages the majority of GIS systems and data that is housed in what are mostly very expensive, proprietary systems that typically cannot be accessed by other agencies or the public.

In the past few years, technological advancements have made powerful GIS applications available for desktop PCs, making access to this data possible for more users if only standards existed.

Increasing Access to GIS Data

John Moeller - who, as chief of the Geographic Data Coordination Program at the Interior Department, is working with industry to help set standards for GIS data - said AIG will add to his office's efforts to open up access to GIS data.

"If Congress is made aware of the problem and brought into the process of trying to find solutions without setting standards in legislation, then that can only be helpful," Moeller said.

Although the problem of interoperability does not have nearly the same potential for huge costs and disruption as does the Year 2000 problem, AIG plans to use the same strategy of raising the government's awareness about the problems that interoperability poses to the government and to the GIS industry, said David Schell, the president and chief executive officer of the Open GIS Consortium, a nonprofit group that is working with GIS buyers and producers to establish an industrywide standard.

Because of urging from groups such as the Information Technology Association of America, Congress has held numerous hearings about the Year 2000 problem, and agencies have issued policies and procurement rules to try to begin making sure that federal systems will be able to accept the Year 2000 without calculating errors.

The GIS problem "is something the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House needs to know about, [and] people on the National Economic Council need to hear about it," said Schell, whose organization is working closely with AIG. "Everybody could benefit from seeing these issues thrashed out in a public forum."

Keith Rogers, a staff member for Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.) who spoke at AIG's meeting, agreed that legislation such as appropriations bills might be an appropriate vehicle in which to encourage agencies to begin working with industry to make government GIS systems interoperable. "I don't think we should be dictating standards, but it needs to be discussed," he said.

Rogers said now that the House Agriculture Committee has finished work on the farm bill, it may turn its attention to oversight of how the USDA is managing its GIS systems.

The USDA's geospatial data is often mentioned as one area that could benefit from interoperability. For example, farmers, who are increasingly using Global Positioning Systems mounted on combines to map harvest yields, have access to GIS databases at the USDA covering soil erosion, fertility and chemical contents. Farmers could assemble this geospatial data, as well as data warehoused in other agencies, into one map that would be the basis for farming plans. But most USDA GIS systems are not interoperable with each other, much less with systems at other agencies.

If the data could be combined, "this would be the best management tool for farmers that has come around in decades," said Darrin Drollinger, the general manager for the Ag Electronic Association, Chicago.

GIS standards also would be helpful to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which employs GIS systems to review congressional and school districts, among other uses.

At the Census Bureau - which is a heavy user and creator of GIS data that federal, state and local agencies and private companies rely on for policy-making and research - standards would be key to the bureau making data more available, said Joel Morrison, chief of Census' Geography Division.