Mapping and Spatial Data: Infrastructures and Imagination

Cartographers, imagery analysts, geographic information system (GIS) specialists and others who work with maps and geospatial information operate on the premise that location or place is the most effective organizing principal for bringing together information and making it understandable for use.  Others outside of the geospatial community are also increasingly recognizing that “where” is the most common integrating element of almost all data and information.

In May 2011 the U.S. Congressional Research Service released a Report that highlighted the challenges to coordinating how geospatial data are acquired and used at the local, state, and federal levels, in collaboration with the private sector.  The Report concluded that the issues of coordination are not yet resolved and that it will likely take some time, and several budget cycles, to evaluate whether the current model of geospatial data management is the best available model for managing the federal geospatial assets.  

Also in May, the National Academy of Public Administration conducted a Forum on Place-Based Public Management, bringing together federal government and private sector individuals to launch a dialogue about challenges and opportunities of enabling the use of place-based approaches and geospatial capabilities.  A common conclusion of both is that we are making progress in our use of geospatial data and technology, but are not moving fast enough.

What is a Map?  A map is often defined as a representation, usually on a flat surface, of a whole or part of an area. Berryl Markham, an aviator said in 1942, that a map in the hands of a pilot is a symbol of trust in our fellow man. Frederick Reuss, the author of five novels, sees a map as a narrative and storytelling mode.  Maps are many things to many people, but ultimately they are a way of communicating, organizing and visualizing thoughts and information and unlocking imagination.

If location/place and the various ways of depicting it is the key organizing principal for data and information, why haven’t we implemented a fundamental infrastructure of spatial data and knowledge representation to help organize how geospatial data is collected, shared and used?  In many places around the world, the idea of a Spatial Data Infrastructure has taken hold and is being used as a coordinating mechanism to bring business, government, and citizens together to adopt common standards and best practices to integrate geospatial data and tools to address complex problems facing them.  We have seen the power of collaborative efforts, the use of standards and the efficiencies of sharing and linking geospatial data from many sources in recent disaster response situations.  However, as a nation, the United States still has not taken the steps necessary to operate as a unified entity to take advantage of its technological prowess, wealth of existing data resources and workforce excellence to lead in implementing ideas which it helped develop and initiate.  We are a large, diverse country with many different governmental entities and legal authorities.  We have often pointed to lack of funding, insufficient incentives, differences in mission and lack of policy to share data and information as impediments to sustained progress.  However, we always seem to rise to the occasion during a crisis to find the resources, understand the societal incentive for crisis reaction, and put aside many of the institutional barriers to collaboration.  Everyday missions of companies, government agencies and not-for-profit entities warrant much of the same level of attention in order to provide top quality products and services to people.

An effective Spatial Data Infrastructure should not be static.  It must change and grow with technological advances, improved tradecraft practices, evolving needs for products and services and the implementation of a growing suite of standards for interoperability.  There is a need for national legislation to: clearly define national policy; establish a governance model to bring all sectors together; and establish interoperability as a requirement.

However, we cannot wait for someone else to take action for us.  Congressional action is unlikely, significant progress by doing what has always been done is improbable, and new or increased funding is all but impossible.  A geospatial interoperability framework exists and continues to improve through the work of standards development organizations such as the Open Geospatial Consortium; best practices for Spatial Data Infrastructures have been identified and used in many inter-organizational/intergovernmental settings around the country.  We need to unlock our imagination to the potential of the power of place and on a day by day basis find ways to incorporate into organizational behaviors the practices, and strategies that have already been shown to work.

After all a map can be many things.  Gilbert Grosvenor is attributed with saying “A map is the greatest of all epic poems.  Its lines and colors show the realization of great dreams.”  We need to “Dream Big Dreams” about how much place matters and each work to bring relationships, tools and geodata together and help make a difference in building a better future.

Guest Contributor John Moeller

John Moeller

John Moeller is the President of JJ Moeller & Associates where he provides geospatial and management consulting services. Mr. Moeller is a senior level expert in spatial data infrastructures, geospatial standards, interoperability, policy and strategic issues.  He has extensive experience in senior level leadership and management of federal and private sector geographic data coordination, collection and use programs.

Mr. Moeller worked for the US Federal Government from1972-2002 where he was the Director Federal Geographic Data Committee when he retired in 2002.  Previous positions included Assistant Director Inventory and Monitoring, National Biological Service (Acting); Deputy Assistant Director Support Services, Bureau Of Land Management and Combat Engineer Officer, US Army.  After federal service Mr. Moeller worked for Northrop Grumman Corporation as a Senior Principal Engineer before retiring in January 2011. Mr. Moeller’s e-mail is [jjmoeller [at] cox [dot] net.]


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