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Spatial Data Needs: The Future of the National Mapping Program 1 INTRODUCTION TECHNOLOGICAL TRANSFORMATION When the United States Geological Survey (USGS) was founded in 1879, the most efficient tool available to inventory and display the arrangement of features on the earth’s surface was the map. In the century or so that followed, the technology for making maps changed significantly (particularly in response to two inventions, the camera and the airplane), and ever-larger areas were mapped in more detail (at larger scales). But the map products continued to look much the same and contained essentially the same categories of information. The public and private sector institutions that had evolved in the United States to meet a wide variety of needs for map products over that century also remained quite stable, as did the nature and character of the primary user communities. But by the late twentieth century the American economy was undergoing a fundamental revolution brought on by the development of new technologies. The digital computer, in particular, has had a profound effect on all aspects of our society. Most professions, disciplines, and organizations that have evolved to meet society’s needs for all forms of information are affected by the ongoing technological revolution in information processing and communication. And the map, as a primary tool for meeting spatial or geographic information needs, is being supplemented and displaced by new computer-based tools that have come to be known as geographic information systems (GIS is the widely accepted abbreviation).
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Spatial Data Needs: The Future of the National Mapping Program COMMITTEE’S CHARGE The USGS and particularly its National Mapping Division (NMD) are looking toward the beginning of the next century with a sense of purpose in order to continue meeting successfully the map needs of its traditional users and a growing community of new users. For that reason the director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1987 requested that the National Research Council (NRC) establish a committee (the Mapping Science Committee) under the auspices of the Board on Earth Sciences and Resources to provide guidance on current mapping and geography issues. The initial charges to the committee were the following: Examine the needs for the geographic and cartographic data provided by the USGS. Do the Survey’s current mapping activities and products adequately address these needs? Examine and advise on USGS programs of research and development of hardware and software for original data acquisition, processing, storing, marketing, and distribution of digital cartographic data and synthesized information products to the user community. Examine the scope and content of the USGS’s activity in geographic information systems (GIS) and recommend their role in assembling and maintaining digital data bases from within the USGS and from other sources. Respond to specific requests for guidance on mapping and geography. This report was prepared to address the first and third of these charges in a specific fashion, and to provide general guidance on the second. Future committee efforts will be directed toward the second, and, as requested, the fourth charges. This selection was made because of time constraints on the committee and because the committee felt that it was necessary to address user requirements and GIS involvement before research programs could be adequately addressed. Assessing USGS/NMD’s mechanisms for establishing and meeting user requirements is, in this era of technological transformation, not nearly as straightforward a task as it might first appear. The committee experienced difficulties in agreeing upon concepts and terminology that were essential to the formulation of its recommendations. This situation arose largely because much of the discipline of “spatial data handling” is still evolving. The USGS/NMD’s “sense of purpose” alluded to earlier has its origins not only in what is happening to spatial representation technologies, institutions, and the user community today, but in the changes between how things have been in the past and what seems to be emerging for the future.
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Spatial Data Needs: The Future of the National Mapping Program ORGANIZATION OF THIS REPORT Chapter 2 looks to the past and reviews the character, programs, and products of NMD as they developed over the past century. In particular, the focus of this chapter is on the geographic or spatial information users whose requirements NMD met with topographic maps. Chapter 3 describes the dramatic transformation that cartography, geographical analysis, and the more general process of spatial representation have undergone in recent decades. An attempt is made in Chapter 3 to specify the changes in user requirements that are a result of this technological transformation and to characterize possible NMD program and research responses to the challenge this user shift presents. In Chapter 4 the committee looks to a somewhat more uncertain future, not only for NMD but for the nation’s spatial information requirements as a whole. Finally, recommendations are presented, taking into account the major forces at work on the economy as a whole and on NMD’s operations in particular. A transformation is occurring in the cartographic enterprise in the United States. A strong National Mapping Division with a clear vision of the future can provide essential leadership and coordination as we approach the twenty-first century. Cooperation among federal agencies, state and local governments, private industry, and the university community will be essential. It is the committee’s belief that geographic/spatial data at scales from local to global form an essential part of the nation’s spatial data infrastructure. By responding to the recommendations contained herein, the committee believes that the USGS/NMD will continue a transformation already under way.
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