Geospatial Information Officer
Department of Interior, United States
Can you give us a national perspective with regards to the geospatial information strategy of the US government? Which institutions are involved in fulfilling that strategy?
We have a strong history of coordination among various departments of the US government that use and create geospatial information. The Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), which promotes the coordinated development, use, sharing and dissemination of geospatial data, comprises of a number of agencies that work together through a formal governance structure to advance the state of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) in the country. Over the twenty years of its existence, the organisation has accomplished a lot in terms of having metadata standards and providing a lot of our data to the public. Apart from being a big player in open standards community, we have been working with our private sector and NGO partners to advance the state of standards and interoperability in the geospatial domain. Over the last couple of years, we have made a big shift in our strategy, towards applying more focus on formulating, building and managing an operational IT programme.
What are the objectives of the Geospatial Platform and its modus operandi to achieve those objectives?
The initiative, known as the Geospatial Platform in the United States, was called for a couple of years ago by the White House. We have been working hard across agencies since that time to better define the structure of this platform. It should be noted that the platform is not intended to be just a website and that www.geoplatform. gov is just one part of the overall initiative. Some of the Platform”s major objectives are:
- The Platform is about facilitating the use of geospatial information. While we have a long history of making our data available through catalogues, it has been more for discovery of data and not necessarily giving people data that is instantly usable.
- The second objective is to drive greater IT efficiency across the government through the use of shared hosting, shared computer infrastructure and shared application development.
- The third objective is to facilitate greater collaboration around geospatial information. We look at the Platform as a way to build communities where people share their information in focused domains.
Geospatial Platform is more focused on the operational level of service delivery rather than policy. Do you perceive this as a step of maturity by the government?
While I do not want to downplay the importance of having policies and standards in place, it is a step forward towards building the operational IT infrastructure necessary to realise the ideas that are in those policies. The NSDI concepts in the US have focused around the idea that when you put standards out in the community and put policies in place regarding the use of those standards, the result will be completeness in terms of all the data that people need.
What are the services and applications enabled through the Platform? What applications are on your priority at the moment?
US government has always promoted the use of geospatial information through initiatives like Geospatial One-Stop and data.gov. The intent has been to make metadata available for everything. The result of that is millions of metadata records from which the user needs to find what they require. In the Geospatial Platform initiative, this parallels our work with implementing supplemental guidance to an existing Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directive in the United States, which is the White House organisation that gives the agencies their resources. OMB had promulgated guidance to an existing policy directive regarding creation of the NSDI. As part of that, they tasked the US government agencies with defining the core themes and the nationally significant data assets that fall under each of those themes. So, instead of looking at this universe of datasets, we want the Geospatial Platform to focus on the few hundred ”critical” datasets. As per the focus of the platform, we are filling out the datasets in the new themes. Leveraging their work, I foresee a number of applications that will be focussed on doing better business and making better public policy within those themes. We have many different Web maps across US government Web domains and each uses its own designing, style and technology. Constraining the number of different Web map designs and viewer applications that are used for public communication across government websites is a huge opportunity, not just in terms of cost savings but in terms of communicating better with the public.
You talked about the objective of greater collaboration. Do you have any kind of a policy framework to make it mandatory for the agencies to collaborate or is it voluntary?
While there are established requirements in place for agencies to collaborate in some business lines of the government, in most cases it is based on the drivers of working together. Citizens do not care about which part of the government is responsible for which function, all they want is to get information from a single place. An excellent example of the impetus for Geospatial Platform initiative is the inter-agency response during the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Various agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Coast Guard started publishing data on their own websites. Many of us at the practitioner level and ultimately the White House felt the need for having a single place where the citizens should be directed in such a situation. While collaboration is not necessarily a written policy directive, it is a general consensus in government to work together more effectively to break down organisational boundaries.
Is quality control a major challenge when creating something like the Geospatial Platform? How do you deal with quality issues?
I talked about the increasing focus on nationally significant datasets, which is a lot different from the past where metadata was the tool through which the user of geospatial data became aware of quality issues. The focus of the Geospatial Platform will be on the nationally significant datasets. Once some data is defined as nationally significant, the onus will be on its producer to document the data quality and the data lifecycle in their entirety. So, although the data could be from different sources, but the federal government will play an active role in certifying that data.
Do you foresee a challenge as far as funding is concerned to carry out several initiatives?
Clearly, the budgets in the US government are declining. However, we have been lucky to have an inter agency funding mechanism for shared geospatial work in the US government for several years. The OMB has directed the agencies to contribute some resources to a shared central pool and we are leveraging that funding stream to build the Platform. There are other ways to arrange funding such as public private partnership. Our commercial partners can engage using a model where they provide data to users at no cost, with no license and no restrictions, which also gives them an opportunity to sell value added products.
Do you believe that the Geospatial Platform would be able to help the government undertake its functions and use geospatial technology in the most cost effective and optimum way?
While we have done a lot of geospatial work across the US government for the last twenty years, most of it is not very well understood by our political and executive leadership. The Platform presents an opportunity to correct that situation. We are working to create a dashboard on top of the Platform, which represents a way for our senior most leadership to not only see Web maps but also ask for new Web maps. As government, we have focused more on tools for practitioners and professionals. The defence and intelligence community has done some great work at bridging the gap between practitioners and executive leadership.
We have written a document called the Geospatial Platform Value Proposition, which talks about how the Platform can be used to drive better public policy. To make this initiative successful will require developing examples that other people can refer to.
Are you working towards facilitating ”geospatial apps” through this Platform for use on smartphones and tablets so that the utility/application and acceptability of geospatial data is increased manifold?
I recognise that my personal use of desktop computing has gone significantly down and more than half of my work on the Web is through mobile devices. Thus, it becomes crucial for us to make sure that the maps and application templates that we are making available are mobile enabled and are viewable on both standard Web clients and mobile clients.
Do you think there is a role for public-private partnership, not just for data input but also to commercialise the value proposition of the Geospatial Platform?
Absolutely. Some of the best examples of success in the federal IT domain have happened when the government has made an investment in something and the private sector has leveraged that by building markets on top of that. GPS is the biggest example where the private sector investment led to a huge change. The availability of more data will lead to innovative applications being developed on top of that by the private sector, which is a primary goal of what we are trying to accomplish.
Is there any initiative that you have already taken to engage the industry and show the way to make use of this platform for commercialisation?
While there is nothing specific to that in the platform yet, there has been some work done in data.gov with regards to contests. A major area of the focus of US government last year was to spur innovation by offering some kind of prize, be it recognition or in the form of funding for novel uses of government data. We have learnt a lot through those initiatives and would like to extend that to the Platform.
Creating something like the Geospatial Platform, which involves several stakeholders, would have been very challenging. What kind of challenges did you face?
We have been lucky from a policy perspective in the US. For a long time, we have had the policy that if the US government creates geospatial data then it shall make it available. What we intend to improve with the platform is the access path. The initiative has had to face several challenges such as:
- To create a shared infrastructure that the agencies can use to put their data.
- To improve the distribution channels, with the goal of creating access to anything that we determine as nationally significant and which needs to be available as highly performing, interoperable web services.
- Another challenge is of perception. When you talk about having shared infrastructure in any government, the general perception is that it is a mandate. However, in this case, it is an option that will help serve citizens and drive down costs by making available shared infrastructure.
Do you think that data initiatives by the private sector like Google Earth, which make it available to the people almost free of cost, is creating a spatial culture?
What Google and others have done in the consumer IT space has created a new culture where people interact with geographic information every day. Nowadays, people do not ask for directions, but use their phones for navigation. Government has a long way to go in terms of creating a similar user experience. Building API is leveraging some of the work that has been going on in the commercial space and helps us better serve citizens and meet the expectations of this kind of placebased culture. Over time, we have seen a real shift from the Federal Government in the US being the predominant producer of geospatial information towards the local governments being the primary producers. The role of the private sector is growing markedly and it is looking at the federal government as one of many partners in this area. Our role needs to change as time goes on to embrace this shift and understand how we can work together.