Is a national GIS on the map?

Government has embraced geographic information systems so thoroughly that the G in GIS might as well stand for government. Agencies big and small at the federal, state and local levels have long looked to GIS to make sense of data and how it integrates with location.

But with improvements in mapping tools and Web-based applications, geospatial data is no longer the sole domain of engineers or researchers. Topographic maps with layered demographic, environmental and other data abound on the Web. At one time, satellite data was secret stuff that only the intelligence agencies could see, said Jeff Vining, research vice president at Gartner. “Now everybody can get satellite data from the Web,” he said.

In recent years, the power of GIS has become increasingly apparent in disseminating a wide array of information visually, from pandemic data to congressional districts and flood zones. As GIS has become recognized as a powerful situational awareness tool, the idea of a developing a national GIS has also developed grass-roots support in government and industry.

The concept of a national GIS has been floating around in various forms for perhaps 15 years, said Jack Dangermond, president and CEO of ESRI. Technology has now advanced to the point where a national GIS is doable, he said.

Dangermond is part of a 28-member group that’s focused on the development of a national GIS (, which he said will accomplish at least three things.

It will involve better management of geographic data. One example is imagery. Currently geospatial images are collected by state, local and federal agencies, so there’s a lot of redundancy.
The committee is pushing for imagery for the nation, where the country is flown over once a year and images are taken. These images would be made available to all tiers of government and the public. Consolidating those flights would save an estimated $140 million a year.
Those high-resolution images would be disseminated on the Web and available to organizations as downloadable chunks.
A national GIS also could promote economic recovery by creating new technical and support jobs.

However, a few hurdles stand in the way of a national GIS. For one, state and local government agencies, not federal ones collect and maintain some of the datasets, Dangermond said. So some of the data wouldn’t be centralized. “That’s one of the interesting architectural dimensions of this, that we can manage some data locally, like land records,” he said. The challenge is integrating the data because, for example, not all counties are automated.

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