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National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus 1 NSDI and Partnerships GOALS OF THE NSDI Our nation must continually address a wide range of complex economic, social, and environmental issues. Geospatial information, together with related computer systems, is pivotal to helping communities, companies, and governments synthesize the information required to address these issues in a timely and efficient manner. However, many of these geospatial data are also difficult to locate, obtain, and integrate—in addition to representing a sizable financial investment by each user sector. The National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) was envisioned as a way of enhancing the accessibility, communication, and use of geospatial data to support a wide variety of decisions at all levels of society. The National Research Council (NRC, 1993; p. 16) initially described the NSDI as: “the…means to assemble geographic information that describes the arrangement and attributes of features and phenomena on the Earth. The infrastructure includes the materials, technology, and people necessary to acquire, process, store, and distribute such information to meet a wide variety of needs.” The importance of the NSDI subsequently was recognized at the federal level in the 1993 Reinventing Government report. The 1994 Executive Order 12906 supported implementation of the NSDI, and the task of providing leadership of the NSDI was assigned to the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC). The importance of the NSDI was
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National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus reiterated in a 1998 report, Geographic Information for the 21st Century: Building a Strategy for the Nation (NAPA, 1998), in which the National Academy of Public Administration identified the NSDI as an important national priority for the United States. At the core of the NSDI is the concept of partnerships, or collaborations, among different agencies, corporations, institutions, and levels of government. Partnerships are designed to share the costs of creation and maintenance of geospatial data, in order to avoid unnecessary duplication, and to make it possible for data collected by one agency at a high level of spatial detail to be used by another agency in more generalized form. The concept of NSDI partnerships specifically does not refer to joint data ownership, but rather emphasizes the mutual advantages arising from collaboration between partners. Partnerships provide a mechanism for augmenting a system of centralized production of geospatial data, where one (usually national) agency has assumed all of the responsibility and cost, so that the data may be disseminated through a coordinated but diverse patchwork of arrangements that is more suited to meeting local needs. The concept was elaborated in a 1994 NRC report, Promoting the National Spatial Data Infrastructure through Partnerships (NRC, 1994), which suggests that given a network of partnerships and effective coordination among partners, the NSDI has enormous potential to minimize the redundant collection of spatial data, to increase citizen participation in decision making, to improve information available to support decision making at all levels of government and the private sector, and generally to sustain the economic well-being of the nation. Considerable progress has been made in the evolution of the NSDI in the seven years since 1994. For example, the Open GIS Consortium (OGC, 2001), a not-for-profit organization with more than 200 corporate, agency, and institutional members, has made much progress in overcoming the lack of interoperability between geospatial datasets and software systems. Of particular interest is the Web Mapping Testbed, which demonstrates that diverse datasets residing on distributed servers can be combined into a common view through a simple browser interface. Many partnerships have been formed, often at the instigation or with the financial support of federal programs. These partnerships have taken many different forms with many different sets of objectives. The NSDI continues to expand and to reach into new areas of application.
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National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus Figure 1 summarizes the current level of involvement in NSDI throughout the nation, based on responses to a recent survey carried out by the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) and the FGDC. Even though there has been considerable success, several questions remain concerning the original premise of the NSDI and the role of partnerships: What forms of partnership work best? How effective are partnerships at fostering each of the basic aims of the NSDI? How successful have the various partnership programs sponsored by the federal government been at achieving the objectives of the NSDI? FIGURE 1. Interest in the NSDI is widespread, a result in part of the partnership programs sponsored by the FGDC. This map illustrates how counties responded to a recent NSGIC/FGDC survey asking about active participation in NSDI framework development (Somers, 1999, page 9; reprinted with permission from Geospatial Solutions).
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National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus In accordance with the committee’s charge to provide external advice to federal agencies, this study is directed specifically to the third of these three questions (see Box 1). More precisely, it addresses the effectiveness of the FGDC partnership programs at meeting the four main goals of the NSDI: Reducing redundancy in geospatial data creation and maintenance. Reducing the costs of geospatial data creation and maintenance. Improving access to geospatial data. Improving the accuracy of geospatial data used by the broader community. If it can be demonstrated and publicized that partnerships are an effective mechanism for achieving these four goals, then the NSDI can be expected to continue to grow and flourish. The committee believes that success in each of these four areas is crucial for the long-term growth and viability of the NSDI. BOX 1 Statement of Task The Mapping Science Committee will assess the success and potential of the various partnership programs for geospatial capabilities, and how these and future programs based on them contribute to the goals of the broader National Spatial Data Infrastructure. Specifically, the committee will assess the success of the partnership programs in: reducing redundancy in geospatial data creation and maintenance, reducing the costs of geospatial data creation and maintenance, improving access to geospatial data, improving the accuracy of geospatial data used by the broader community. The study will use the status quo in the absence of these programs as the baseline. The study will specifically avoid comment on any additional objectives of these programs that are outside the immediate domain of NSDI.
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National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus COORDINATION AND LEADERSHIP The FGDC was formed in 1990 through the revision of Circular A-16 of the Office of Management and Budget to “…promote the coordinated development, use, sharing, and dissemination of surveying, mapping, and related spatial data” (OMB, 1990; p. 5). The major objective of Circular A-16 was to encourage agencies to avoid duplication of data acquisition efforts. Better data management should minimize the total costs in mapping and spatial data activities, while maximizing the availability of data to large numbers of users. In 1994, Executive Order 12906 directed the FGDC, within the context of the NSDI, to foster coordination among federal agencies, to assist in the development and promulgation of standards, to assist in the identification of requirements for and approaches to producing data, to help develop better means to find and access data, to promote education and training activities, and to facilitate and foster partnerships and alliances within and among various sectors to accomplish all of these activities (Federal Register, April 13, 1994; p. 17671–17674). At the time of the 1994 Executive Order, the NSDI was still an unfamiliar concept to many in the geospatial data community. The appropriate roles of all levels of government and the various private sector companies were poorly defined, and the steps needed to redefine traditional roles in the NSDI era were not clear. The infrastructure often appeared chaotic with no coherent direction. Organizations were confronted by myriad problems, confusing policies, and even disincentives to coordinate their activities. In addition, many of the essential components necessary for the NSDI to flourish were in their infancy. Soon after the Executive Order, the FGDC made significant advances by effectively communicating the NSDI challenge through newsletters, magazines, and professional journals, and through the organization of national forums. Although geographic information councils had already been formed in many states, the FGDC encouraged their formation in all states, gave its support to the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC), and gave that organization a role in FGDC’s deliberations. This increased awareness of the NSDI in the geospatial data community and the need for broad-scale coordination to meet NSDI objectives.
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National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus A report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA, 1998) drew attention to the need for a statutory basis for the NSDI in order to continue the advances achieved by the FGDC. It recommended the restructuring and consolidation of basic geographic information functions into a new Geographic Data Service, and the creation of a new private, non-profit organization, the National Spatial Data Council, to complement the federal functions of the Federal Geographic Data Committee (Box 2). To date, no formal actions have been taken to implement the NAPA proposals. BOX 2 Statement by the National Academy of Public Administration The panel believes that legislation is needed (to sustain the NSDI), but the case for any measure beyond the current executive order still needs to be made. Such a statute, at minimum, should include: a list of congressional findings about GI [geographic information]; a statement of national goals and a definition for NSDI; a charter for the National Spatial Data Council (see below); orders for the consolidation of federal base GI functions; modifications to existing law to facilitate GI partnerships, cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs), and private- sector procurements; amendments or rescissions of current law to modernize and conform existing program authorizations to the NSDI concept. Recommendation: Draft a new statute in cooperation with state and local governments and other organizations to create an NSDI, establish a National Spatial Data Council, and better define federal agency roles and responsibilities for NSDI so as to meet the participating organizations’ programmatic needs. SOURCE: NAPA, 1998; Page xiii.
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National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus In addition to the efforts of the inter-agency FGDC, many individual agencies have made concerted efforts to address the need for geospatial data integration. For instance, in 1999 the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) established the position of Geographic Information Officer, with a mandate to coordinate geospatial data production, maintenance, and integration across the agency, and to build a more integrated interface between the agency and the users of its services. COMPONENTS OF THE NSDI The NSDI has been implemented by defining and promoting data and metadata standards, and by establishing a distributed geospatial data ‘clearinghouse,’ within the context of an overarching data Framework: Data Standards Two major standards have been developed over the past decade as components of the NSDI. The Spatial Data Transfer Standard (SDTS) defines terminology and content for geographic datasets. It has been mandated as Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 173 (NIST, 1994), and several federal agencies have developed customized versions of the SDTS to meet their specific needs. While this standard has been mandated for federal activities, its use outside the federal government is essentially voluntary. In the private sector, it competes with a range of standards and formats, many of many of which are associated with specific commercial software products. Moreover, the SDTS competes with other standards in use by the military. In practice, therefore, the general community’s adoption of format standards is driven at least in part by the popularity of software products, and time-consuming and expensive conversion between different formats is still common. Although vendor-specific formats may be more popular than SDTS in practice, it must be acknowledged that the effort to develop SDTS provided an opportunity for the community to openly discuss and develop some consensus about the need and mechanism for sharing
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National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus data between proprietary systems. In some ways, the process leading to the development of this standard was a predecessor to the Open GIS Consortium. Similarly, the FGDC has done a remarkable job of developing a wide range of standards for the capture, coding, definition, storage, and transfer of spatial data. One of the most important has been the Content Standards for Digital Geospatial Metadata (CSDGM, 2001) that establish the standardized description of geospatial datasets. In part because of the importance of effective description to data sharing and the avoidance of duplication, this metadata standard has had a much more significant effect on the NSDI than the data transfer standard. It has been widely adopted in the geospatial data community within the United States, and it represents the de facto standard around the world. Many other metadata standards are sufficiently similar to the CSDGM that conversion between them is straightforward and supported by software tools. In addition to the six SDTS and metadata standards, the various working groups of the FGDC have now endorsed another 10 content standards for themes such as wetlands, utilities, soils, and vegetation. They have also provided standards for orthophotography, Global Positioning System (GPS) data, and remote sensing. Approximately another 20 standards are in various stages of development. The promulgation of these spatial data standards represents an extraordinary effort by a huge number of agencies and individuals. The FDGC should be applauded for encouraging and facilitating these developments. National Geospatial Data Clearinghouse Over the past seven years, the establishment of the National Geospatial Data Clearinghouse (NGDC, 2001) has emerged as an important operational component of NSDI. This web-based data server technology represents an excellent example of how the FGDC has reacted to the 1994 Executive Order. It consists of a small number of portals, or access points on the Internet, that provide identical services, together with a larger number of servers that provide direct access to geospatial datasets. The data clearinghouse appears to users as a single, virtual, geospatial data catalog. Portals and servers are maintained by
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National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus their sponsors, which include federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), universities, and corporations. Each server’s sponsors contribute data and associated metadata records—using the metadata standards—and manage both data and metadata records locally. At the time of writing there were six portals, more than 250 servers in 26 different countries, and several thousand datasets in the clearinghouse system. As with the metadata standard, the FGDC has taken a lead role in the implementation of standard web-based data serving. The clearinghouse standard has proven very popular with both its sponsors and its users, and has become the de facto international standard. Even though other internet-based solutions for distributing spatial data have evolved in both the public and private sectors, the pioneering effort of the FGDC to demonstrate the feasibility of the concept must be acknowledged. NSDI Framework The core of the NSDI is data sharing, and accurate data must be constructed on a solid foundation. Although a very large number of geospatial data types exist, those that constitute the critical base layers are considered to be the framework for the entire system. The MSC’s 1995 report, A Data Foundation for the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, articulated the need for a NSDI foundation. The committee used the construction of a building as a metaphor: “…A solid foundation of concrete or other material is first put in place; then a framework of steel beams is connected to the foundation to create a structure to support the building’s interior and exterior” (NRC, 1995; p. 15). In the same way, a foundation of spatial data serves as a reference for integrating other data themes. As these themes are developed and integrated with the foundation, a structure will be created that can support and sustain the NSDI. The committee considers geodetic control, digital terrain, and digital orthorectified imagery to constitute the NSDI foundation. Under Executive Order 12906, the FGDC established subcommittees and placed priority on transportation, boundary, and hydrology data. In 1995, the FGDC framework working group identified the purpose and goals for the framework and incentives for participation; defined the information content; developed preliminary technical,
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National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus operational, and business contexts; specified the institutional role needed; and developed a strategy for a phased implementation of the framework (FGDC, 1995). The Framework Working Group identified the following seven themes as the framework of the NSDI: geodetic control (the measurements and monuments that form the foundation for practical surveying); orthoimagery (digital datasets derived from aerial photographs and corrected for distortion); elevation (digital files defining the height of the land surface and depths below water surfaces); transportation (roads, railways); hydrography (rivers, lakes, reservoirs); the definition of boundaries and names of government units (counties, states, cities); and cadastral information (boundaries defining land ownership). In a sense, the NSDI Framework is the digital equivalent of the USGS’s topographic map. Separate layers representing topography, transportation, hydrology, and cultural features—each denoted by a specific color and cartographic symbol—comprise the topographic map. The topographic map also relies on a solid foundation of geodetic control and imagery. For decades, numerous data acquisition and presentation activities have been based on the USGS topographic quadrangles. Users tie other information to these maps, either through annotation or by directly overlaying information on transparent sheets. As the USGS converted these maps into digital line graphs, the information on these maps became the first nationwide de facto spatial data framework. Over the past couple of decades, other federal agencies, such as the Census, have taken data from these original topographic maps, edited them, and added topological structure and attributes to meet their individual needs. Arguably, the objective of the NSDI is to improve the spatial resolution, the accuracy, the content, and the currency of this base. As the FGDC (1997a) notes, the NSDI Framework should also consider the procedures and technology for building and using the data; and the institutional relationships and business practices that support those procedures. It is the institutional partnerships that are the focus of this report.
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National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus PURPOSE OF THE REPORT Over the past seven years, since the 1994 Executive Order and the MSC’s report, Promoting the National Spatial Data Infrastructure through Partnerships (NRC, 1994), the NSDI has matured considerably. The FGDC has made significant efforts to reach local and state governments, both in funding initiatives and in developing policy. Much excellent work has been done in promoting the NSDI’s core ideas, developing consistent standards for the representation of spatial data, and raising awareness of its objectives among the broader geospatial data-user community. Such awareness is essential if the NSDI is to succeed, because NSDI is, by definition, a community effort. Seven years after the Executive Order, the NSDI is moving into the next phase of its institutional development. Only through a concerted effort will the NSDI succeed in its goal of reforming the production, dissemination, and use of geospatial data. Growth to date has been sustained largely by belief in the principles of NSDI, rather than by any hard evidence of success, and the concept of partnerships expounded by the MSC in its 1994 report remains largely an unrealized construct. As we enter the new millennium, the National Research Council considered that it would be valuable for the MSC to assess the success and potential of the various FGDC-sponsored geospatial-data partnership programs, and to assess how these programs and future programs based on them contribute to the goals of the broader NSDI. Specifically, the committee was tasked to assess the success of the partnership programs in: (1) reducing redundancy in geospatial data creation and maintenance; (2) reducing the costs of geospatial data creation and maintenance; (3) improving access to geospatial data; and (4) improving the accuracy of geospatial data used by the broader community (Box 1). In its 1994 report, the committee had argued that all four of these effects would follow from the implementation of partnerships under the umbrella of the NSDI. In a sense this report provides a barometer of whether the FGDC programs are fostering these outcomes.
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