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6/6/2011
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Feds Consider Integrated Geospatial Data Sharing

A nationwide program to share data via digital images is one solution to challenges to disseminating data across government agencies other public and private entities that collect and store it.

The federal government is pondering ways to integrate the sharing of geospatial data across federal, state, and local government agencies, including a program that uses enhanced digital images called to collect and disseminate aerial and satellite imagery.

A new government report (PDF) sheds light on the state of geospatial data sharing in the United States and some of the challenges government officials face in getting that data across the disparate IT systems used to store it.

Geospatial information is data that contains a set of geographic coordinates that can be collected, manipulated, and displayed in real time. The federal government uses this data in a variety of ways, including to produce floodplain maps, conduct the Census, and assess vulnerability and response to natural hazards such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. The last has been especially relevant lately as a string of deadly tornados have swept across the Midwest, killings hundreds and causing billions of dollars in damage.

As much as 80% of government data has some kind of geospatial component, according to the report, "Issues and Challenges for Federal Geospatial Data." However as the data is collected by any number of federal, state, tribal, and local governments, private companies, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations, collection and management is considered to be the most expensive part of a Geographic Information System (GIS), or computer system used to store, analyze, and display geospatial data.

While the federal government used to be the primary and authoritative provider of geospatial information in the United States, now it plays more of an aggregator role, coordinating and managing data and facilitating partnerships among the entities that collect and manage it.

Challenges it faces include how to eliminate duplicative data sets collected by various authorities, including governments at the local, state, and federal level, according to the report.

One solution that's been proposed is a program under development by the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) called Imagery for the Nation (IFTN). The program would collect and disseminate satellite imagery as digital orthoimagery, and allow access to that information available to government agencies that need it, according to the report.

Orthoimages are aerial photographs or images from which distortions resulting from camera tilt and ground relief have been removed, according to the report. They have a uniform scale and also can be used as maps.

Orthoimagery is the basis for most public and private geospatial data-collection efforts, and as many as 1,300 different government organizations across the United States are developing digital orthoimagery products, according to the report.

Two federal programs would comprise IFTN--the National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP), an existing program overseen by the Department of Agriculture, and a companion program the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) would administer.

As proposed, both programs would collect images of about 50% of U.S. land mass that would be available to government entities, with an option for states to enhance any or all images of the 50% of land that isn't immediately available, according to the report.

The program also would include 50% matching funds for partnerships to acquire six-inch resolution imagery over urban areas in the United States that have been identified by the U.S. Census Bureau to have at least 1,000 people per square mile, according to the report. IFTN calls for national standards for all geospatial data as well.

The NSGIC estimates that IFTN would cost $1.38 billion during the first 10 years. However, the effort would save $120 million over that period by reducing overhead and other costs associated with current geospatial data collection efforts, according to the report.

In the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: More than half of federal agencies will use cloud computing within 12 months, our new survey finds. Security, ROI, and management challenges await them. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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