National Geospatial Data Policy

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Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are widely used to link data from many different sources to produce information that greatly aids decision makers. To be effective, GIS operations must access and utilize high quality geospatial data. Experience shows that good data, effective tools, and training will lead to cost savings, more efficient operations, and more effective decision-making. To that end, this NSGIC advocacy paper focuses on developing the high quality geospatial data required to produce current and dependable information, build accurate map services, and to fully enable leadership to make more informed and transparent decisions. Furthermore, when data are put in the public domain, the public is better informed and they create many new business opportunities for the private sector.

NSGIC Wants National Data Programs

Geospatial data are critical to a wide range of public and private activities. These include activities as diverse as 911 response, floodplain management, broadband access, marketing, and school bus routing. We all need the data, but we lack national data strategies to consistently deliver data sets that meet the business needs of all levels of government. Sometimes the data simply don’t exist or only exist for some places, but not nationwide. In other cases the data don’t meet the needs of multiple agencies because they weren’t produced using appropriate standards or scales for potential user organizations. Alternatively, there are redundant versions of the same data supported by taxpayers, that have been created to meet the specific, narrow, and uncoordinated needs of individual agencies.

NSGIC believes we should develop and maintain focused national data programs that meet the needs of all levels of government as well as the private sector. This generally means large scale data that meet the needs of local emergency responders on the ground, as well as Federal analysts looking at nationwide trends. We believe that data should be collected once and used many times using a systematic approach that we refer to as For the Nation.

Public dollars are in short supply. Federal, state, and local budgets remain stressed by a weak economy. National geospatial data will require funding, but much of that money can be attained by eliminating redundant programs and by leveraging efforts across various levels of government. A large part of the money needed is already being spent, but in a disorganized manner. Additional funding could come from cost savings gained by programs making efficient use of this data.

Revise and Refocus Federal Data Programs

Depending on the particular data theme, there are two basic ways that Federal data programs can be revised and refocused to meet the needs of all levels of government. They are 1) coordinating the roll-up of high resolution local data to the national level, or 2) allow local buy-up enhancements to Federal data collection efforts. Examples of each are given below.

Roll-up Local Data

In many cases local data are the best data. Data produced by local governments for their own needs can generally meet the needs of state and Federal agencies. To make that happen, local data must be integrated across regions and 50 states. By developing a systematic national programmatic and technical approach, we could make this happen, thus engaging cities, counties, and others in a coordinated effort that would pay benefits to and for all.

National Addresses Point Database.
Addresses are created by local address authorities that are usually in city, county, or tribal agencies. The data are intended to support the delivery of essential services like utilities and emergency response. Ideally, addresses are composed of both a label (street number and name) and an x-y coordinate pair (latitude/longitude or equivalent) and these addresses are provided to the local 9-1-1 authority as soon as a building permit is issued in order to facilitate emergency responses to accidents on construction sites. We will call this label/co-ordinate pair an Address Point.

Good Address Points will save lives by directing local emergency responders to incidents on construction sites, helping mutual aid responders to navigate unfamiliar territory when they have been called to provide backup services, and aiding state and federal crews when responding to floods and other disasters where normal signage has been obliterated.

Rolling-up all local Address Points would create a National Address Point Database. This is something that has value for local governments by providing information from adjacent jurisdictions. It has value to state governments that need to properly collect and distribute local tax revenues. It has value to the U.S. Postal Service and other delivery services. It has value to Federal government agencies like the U.S. Census Bureau to count populations, and the Federal Communication Commission to provide equitable broadband access for citizens and businesses across the nation. It has value to the private sector that delivers products and services to customers, provides risk-appropriate insurance coverage, and makes available reliable online mapping services. Right now those individual agencies and sectors are each developing and maintaining their own address files with costs borne by our citizens – both as taxpayers and as customers.

There is no cheaper or better way to create a National Address Point Database than by rolling-up local address point records across the nation. NSGIC supports the call made by the National Geospatial Advisory Committee for a National Address Database. NSGIC is committed to working with the U.S. Census Bureau, USDOT, and others to fulfill that vision.

Other Roll-ups of Local Data.
NSGIC believes there are other opportunities to take advantage of local data. Parcel data are one of the most useful data types, and they complement address data by providing contextual ownership information about the landscape. The 2007 National Academies report, National Land Parcel Data, called for a roll-up of local and state parcel data. A 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service, Issues Regarding a National Land Parcel Database, concluded that “[a] truly national land parcel cadastre would likely require strong partnerships between the federal government and state and local governments.”

Transportation For The Nation (TFTN)
is close to becoming a reality. This is a new effort initiated by NSGIC and led by the U.S. Department of Transportation to ask the states to develop and submit their road statewide road centerline records for inclusion in a national database. Most state departments of transportation have good relations with their local governments and have incorporated that additional information into their statewide systems. Beginning in 2014, each state’s Highway Performance Monitoring System (HPMS) reports included centerline data for all roads within the state. Additional effort will be required to integrate this data across state lines and across the country.

Local Buy-ups within Federal Programs

The Federal government often has the business need and the necessary resources to collect its own data. This is well and good. The first problem comes when each agency has slightly different data needs and agencies are not required to work together to implement a single collection effort. The second problem is leaving out the needs of state and local governments. A standard national scale for producing topographic maps is 1:24,000. State and local governments often need maps that are 10-times higher in resolution (1:2,400 scale), or more. Working together, with state and local contributions, data can be collected that meet the needs of all levels of government for costs that are far below what each jurisdiction or agency would have to pay separately. Examples of existing and proposed Federal programs are:

Imagery For the Nation.
This is NSGIC’s proposed initiative for aerial photography to cover the entire country. An existing part of that initiative is working well: the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP). NAIP collects data during the growing season, with plants fully emerged and leaves on the trees (called “leaf-on”). The data are 1-meter resolution and cover a state’s agricultural area, including forest lands. Other Federal agencies work with USDA and pay for extending the flights to cover non-agricultural areas. State and local governments sometimes are willing to pay for higher resolution imagery. The USDA has established mechanisms to accept this additional work. It is very cost effective for planes to cover larger areas or use multiple data collection techniques once they are airborne. NSGIC is still looking for a Federal coordinated approach for the very high resolution, leaf-off photography that is needed for many Federal, state and local uses (including land use change detection and terrain modeling).

Elevation for the Nation.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has launched their 3D Elevation Program (3DEP). Before doing so, they worked with the National Digital Elevation Program (NDEP), which coordinates the needs of 12 Federal agencies and NSGIC. The USGS products have used 10’ elevation contours. A cost benefit study of multiple users showed a high return on investment from enhanced elevation data products derived from LiDAR, including derived 1’ contours. Key components of 3DEP include a cooperative funding model and options for data quality upgrades to meet State, local and scientific investigation needs. NSGIC applauds this approach and encourages the full development and funding of the 3DEP program.

Federal and State Governments Need to Work Together

Our nation can only experience government excellence when all levels of government work effectively together. Our citizens are best served through coordinated activities and common goals. The cost of government can only be reduced when joint programs are developed that meet the business needs of all levels of government. To this end, NSGIC makes the following recommendations to the Federal government:

1) Federal agencies should develop the standards and tools that support the integration of local data to state and national levels.

2) Federal data collection activities should include cooperative options for state and local buy-ups.

3) Federal agencies should notify states of upcoming data collection activities in their area as soon as possible. States can then respond appropriately, possibly by curtailing redundant efforts or providing additional funds to enhance the federal effort.

4) Federal agencies should notify states of pending grant and contract programs. The states can then notify local governments and help develop better proposals to meet national needs.

5) Federal agencies and state governments should work together to develop a common understanding of program requirements and the data required to meet those needs. NSGIC participates in NOAA’s Digital Coast program and believes it is a successful example of such a coordinated approach.

6) Federal programs should be coordinated across Federal agencies. This will make it easier for the states to work with the Federal government. Some of this is happening already: e.g. coordinated air photo and elevation programs. The Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) should encourage more efforts like these.

7) When appropriate, states should be contracted to develop national data programs. States did this for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to create the National Broadband Map which produced better data that are used by many sectors. This will provide the Federal government with on-the-ground expert advice and lead to better data for all.