Despite thousands of data sources for geographic information systems, there's no universal standard or widespread, non-proprietary way to federate that data. It doesn't have to be this way.
It's easy to blame ESRI or Google for this state of affairs, and they certainly have played a part, but this is a case where we all—federal, state, and local government; higher education; and private industry—need to step up and ask how to fix the problem. Here’s what each of us must do:
Federal Government’s Role: According to an article by Dr. Christopher Tucker of the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, the problem started in President Nixon's era, when Nixon failed to approve a proposed agency to centrally coordinate mapping and other tasks that we'd classify as GIS nowadays. This was an "aha!" moment. I've worked with some pretty awesome GIS professionals, and the secret sauce seems to be to treat GIS as a multi-agency, collaborative sport in need of strong governance.
I've always wondered why the feds didn't get that. Now I know. To quote the good doctor, "The federal government lacks a functioning governance or operational structure to coordinate, deploy or utilize spatial data in a manner that could make ‘place-based’ decision making effective."
The federal government needs to prioritize governance, but it also must fund research that will provide for a federated GIS model.
State & Local Governments’ Role: This can be summed up in two words: technocratic isolationism. Over the years, I've observed that many local government GIS professionals don't prioritize process over technology, earning well-deserved labels as technocrats. In this multi-agency world of ours, everybody's got a piece of location-based data.
Enterprise architects know that you need governance when you have stewardship over data that multiple folks create and own. As a result of struggles brought on due to lack of process or governance, local governments spend more time in mortal combat than they need to. Smaller governments also have few economies of scale, while state governments tend to have stakeholders with massively inflated expectations.
All of this adds up to isolationism--the belief that any substantial collaboration with agencies that don't immediately border theirs is useless and a waste. To be fair, there are some relatively successful statewide GIS clearinghouse efforts. But they can't succeed on their own.
State and local governments need to prioritize process, governance, and collaboration.
Higher Education's Role: I'm not an expert on higher education, but I do know that lots of primary IT research and reference implementations used to come out of universities. Nowadays, however, universities seem to focus on "incubators" and other vehicles to serve the private sector.
A well-known university president went on NPR about a year ago to beg bright people to come work for universities instead of taking gold-plated private research jobs. I get his point about needing the best and the brightest to be able to produce the best serendipitous finds, which tend to result from studies that don't always necessarily have a poin--research unconstrained by immediate usefulness. And you absolutely need good and open research to solve GIS enterprise architecture issues.
Universities need to get over their lack of self esteem, figure out how to attract the best and brightest, and fund primary research without intellectual property being tied up or locked away by the private sector.