Mapping Portal to Link Government, Other Data in Geospatial Platform

by   |   February 27, 2013 7:25 pm   |   0 Comments

WASHINGTON—Anyone looking to create data maps will soon have a new partner in the federal government., now live as a prototype,  will launch in the next two to three months and will provide both resources and a destination for governments, business and consumers to create and view data-driven maps.

The purpose of the new online geographic information systems (GIS) portal will be “to provide data that people can make maps with, as well as to provide tools to help people make maps,” said the Department of the Interior’s Geospatial Information Officer Jerry Johnston. Johnston is a member of the Federal Geographic Data Committee and leader of the project. The site was presented at the Esri Federal GIS Conference in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 25-27, attended by approximately 3,600 government geospatial managers, specialists and analysts, as well as chief information officers and geographic information officers. Esri is a technology provider for the new portal.

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Imagine if the site had been available during the Deepwater Horizon incident.  Federal, state and local government agencies concerned with different aspects of the disaster— environmental damage, oil production, effect on local businesses, and more—would have been able to create their own GIS maps addressing these specific areas of concern by using the data and tools the site make available.  The public and others, meanwhile, would be able to visit a page of the site devoted to the disaster to find data-driven maps that might, for instance, show the effect of the oil spill on tourism, or on housing.

Instead, when Deepwater Horizon hit in April 2010, “for the most part, users needed to go to multiple sites to see all of our data and maps,” Johnston said.

Johnston, who led a panel discussion at the conference with representatives of various government departments (Agriculture, Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), said he expects about 32 federal agencies that use mapping to contribute to the new site by the spring, with most government bodies that use mapping to be on board a year later.

Challenges to Overcome 

Government GIS professionals at the event expressed interest in the potential use cases for an online mapping portal. Even so, a variety of challenges before the finished site comes online remain to be resolved.  Here is a rundown of those the panel discussed:

Driving and sustaining user adoption.  The last thing Johnston and his colleagues want is for the site to create some initial buzz, be tried for awhile, and then be forgotten.  They want to be as popular as the government’s other key information site,  Johnston said he believes the solution will come from the efficiency and cost savings that will come when users realize that they often will get what they need by going to one portal for the federal government, rather than multiple portals.

While will not supersede other government websites, proponents of the project hope that some government agencies may choose to move their existing geographic sites over to, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has already announced it will do. More typically, however, agencies will use the infrastructure to build and share maps and it won’t necessarily replace existing sites wholesale, Johnston said.

Defining priority content.  What items will a search bring up?  Which ones will be on top?  Users need to be sure that “the right fruit is coming out of this tree,” said Richard Allen, an environmental protection specialist at the EPA.

The solution is more than simply a technical one, Johnston said. Various government agencies have assigned managers to ensure that content matching nationally significant geospatial data is included in the portal.

At the same time, since anyone can contribute data and maps to the federal site, there is a danger of too much data, which raises the related challenge of people misusing data and creating maps that are not useful.  The responsibility to manage which data is placed on the site and which is not will lie with managers for each area within the site, who will also need to make clear to users what the data is intended for.

Security.  The question of access and controls is one that confronts all government sites, and Johnston said he would like to see one set of controls used universally.  That solution, however, is not immediately at hand, so a temporary fix, just for, will be in place when the site debuts in the spring.

That government GIS leaders would be enthusiastic about a new portal is not a surprise. Johnston suggested that the success of the site will depend on whether users will create maps on the site, then copy them to their own sites for others to use; and whether others, including members of the public, go to the site when the next Deepwater Horizon or hurricane strikes, to get information.

A number of federal departments and agencies are already contributing to the site, including the Environmental Protection Agency.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration already has about 100 NOAA users contributing content.

Robert Sperber is a freelance writer based near Washington, D.C. He can be reached at

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