GIS Puts Information on the Map

One challenge in reducing urban welfare rolls is that many welfare recipients live in the inner cities, while the bulk of entry-level job vacancies are in the suburbs. To see how well existing public transport could accommodate welfare recipients wanting to commute to suburban jobs, the Transportation Department turned to a geographic information system (GIS).

Simultaneously displaying on a computer screen the locations of welfare recipients, entry-level jobs and public transit systems on a map of Boston (chosen as the prototype site) showed that "there's still a tremendous disparity," says Bruce Spear, director of the Office of Geographic Information Services in DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. "When you see it on a map and see clusters of people who have very good access to transportation from where they live, but the potential jobs have no access to transit, it really brings home that issue. A map is worth a thousand words."

This prototype project is just one example of the many new uses the federal government has found for geographic information systems, software and hardware that assembles, stores, manipulates and displays geographically referenced information. The government has been using GIS for more than a quarter century, but for much of that time it was a specialized field applied to only a few areas, such as land management and research. In the last several years, the technology has evolved into a tool that even casual users can apply to a wide set of applications.

The federal government invested $254 million in software, hardware and services from GIS industry vendors in 1996, according to Daratech Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., market research firm. That figure represents a 10 percent increase over 1995 expenditures. Unlike in the past, government is favoring small-scale GIS projects over large procurements and relying more on commercial, off-the-shelf GIS products.

A Changing Landscape

Several factors have contributed to the growing use of GIS in both the government and industry. Personal computer prices have dropped even as more powerful PCs-which are better able to process large graphics files-have entered the market. (GIS vendors have responded by making more products for Windows NT computers.) More efficient data storage media such as CD-ROMs are available, and the growing use of the Internet has made it an effective distribution method.

Users also have less need to go to the expense of collecting or creating their own data, because many commercial companies now sell geospatial data. Commercial satellites and the prevalence of global positioning systems (GPS) will further increase the availability of high-resolution, high-precision imagery.

New Internet GIS tools are expected within the next year. "There's the promise of being able to access data directly over the Internet, not just downloading an entire database," says Transportation's Spear. On their own computers, Spear says, users will be able to view "a map consisting of databases sitting on different [computers] across the nation. It offers tremendous potential for being able to share data."

Another important new development is the ability to work with spatial data in a relational database environment. Both Oracle Corp. and Informix Software Inc. now offer products that make it possible to manage standard and geospatial data types within the same databases.

"The nature of GIS is changing," says Greg Smith, geographic sciences adviser to the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. "It's getting away from the notion of large software systems . . . [and moving toward] geospatial capabilities that people can integrate on their own or with other types of applications, such as spreadsheets and word processors." This is placing GIS-type technology "into the hands of many, many people, for many different applications," Smith says.

Federal GIS Use

"For the last 10 to 15 years, what the government was primarily doing [with GIS technology] was creating spatial databases using GIS tools," says Dana Paxson, federal marketing group coordinator at Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI), a leading GIS vendor based in Redlands, Calif. Now agencies are focusing on how they can use GIS tools to disseminate and manage that data, Paxson says.

Agencies have also become more aware of the benefits of sharing data across an enterprise or among different departments and levels of government. The Housing and Urban Development Department, for example, sends GIS software to its local grantees to help them make better informed decisions regarding community development and how best to allocate federal funds. And the Environmental Protection Agency is one of many agencies taking advantage of the Internet by combining its Envirofacts relational database (containing data about EPA-regulated facilities) with a GIS database. The result, called "Maps on Demand," allows World Wide Web users to see regulated facilities in the context of surrounding geographic features. Providing this information through the Internet has saved EPA staff the research time necessary to fulfill each request for information.

Federal GIS applications cover a broad spectrum: the Library of Congress is assembling a GIS application for users interested in studying environmental or other changes, giving them access to digitized historic maps; the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses GIS technology to help guide disaster recovery efforts; and the Justice Department is using GIS to track crime patterns, just to name a few examples. The Defense Department is the most aggressive federal GIS user, ESRI's Paxson says. DoD has applied the technology to tasks as diverse as managing base-level activities, tracking unexploded mines and even negotiating diplomatic settlements.

The use of GIS for diplomacy spotlights a growing user group: high-level decision-makers. GIS technology is "moving more into the resource management and decision-making realm," says Clifford Greve, vice president/director of imagery and remote sensing systems for Science Applications International Corp., a systems integrator with offices in McLean, Va. The policy use has become more prevalent because the technology is now "more available in near real-time," Greve says. These users "don't need to know the ins and outs of the technology, but just need that spatial data to make quick decisions," Paxson says.

Outlook and Obstacles

The cost of GIS technology is much less of a deterrent than it once was, and the investment in GIS differs markedly among users. Most Transportation Department agencies, for example, have "some GIS capability," Spear says, but "most are fairly limited," relying on perhaps "two workstations running desktop mapping software." The minimum level of investment is "one relatively high-powered desktop computer, a desktop GIS software package, and probably a color printer, all of which you can get for less than $10,000," Spear says. Comprehensive high-end GIS systems cost more by several orders of magnitude.

"The investment from a hardware and software point of view is continually dropping," Greve says. "The real question one has to ask is whether the data is available and can be purchased. . . . Data is far and away the largest cost of any GIS system." Sources of data may be multiplying, but it's still no small task to "develop a nationwide database at the level of resolution [necessary] to support a nationwide decision-maker," Greve says. "The challenge that lies in front of federal agencies now," he adds, "is how to settle on a level of resolution and detail that is maintainable, given budgets."

Because GIS technology has only recently begun gaining a wide user base, many federal users aren't yet taking full advantage of the technology. At the Transportation Department, for example, GIS technology "could be used much more extensively to go beyond presentations, to do more detailed spatial analysis," Spear says. Models of how systems change over time can be built into GIS applications to allow "what-if" scenario evaluations.

Another hurdle is the inefficiency of working with data that was collected with another vendor's tools. Fortunately, there appears to be progress in this area: the Open GIS Consortium, a group of about 100 companies, government agencies and universities organized to promote open systems approaches in the GIS arena, unveiled an interface specification in August. This was the first of many specifications the group plans to develop in order to ensure users will have transparent access to a variety of geospatial data and processing resources in a networked environment. A few so-called plug-and-play components that can integrate seamlessly with each other and with non-GIS software have recently begun appearing on the market, offered by companies such as ESRI and Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville, Ala., another leading GIS vendor.

Several government initiatives also are intended to help the government make better use of GIS technology and to avoid duplication of effort through better coordination. A 1994 executive order established the idea of a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), encompassing geospatial data activities both within and outside the government. The interagency Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), chaired by the Interior Secretary, was given the responsibility of promoting the NSDI. Its tasks include establishing standards and making geospatial data more widely available.

The FGDC has already released a standard for metadata, which is information about data, used to determine the contents and quality of a data set. The committee is now working on standards for different data types. The FGDC also established the National Geospatial Data Clearinghouse, a network of data producers and users on the Internet. Federal agencies are required to list new data with the clearinghouse and to check the clearinghouse before collecting data, in case another group already possesses it.

While admitting that GIS can't be expected to solve all of an agency's problems, industry experts and end users see a bright future ahead for the technology and its applications. "In the future, you will find the ability to spatially reference information a lot easier and more prevalent," Smith says.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec