The Federal Geospatial Data Act of 2015: A NYS Local Perspective

There has been a limited amount of fanfare and support – or even discussion for that matter – here in the Empire State on the proposed Geospatial Data Act of 2015.    Beyond one or two acknowledgements on  the state listservs, the announcement really didn’t generate any buzz or visible discussion throughout the GIS community.   Though it comes as no real surprise as few in New York statewide GIS community have had any meaningful exposure or introduction to past legislation/bills regarding federal agencies referenced in the proposed 2015 act introduced by Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.  In absence of any real meaningful dialog here in the New York  between the GIS professional community and elected officials on federal legislation (or any geospatial legislation for that matter except perhaps the never-ending “Surveyor” Legislation), one wonders if New York’s federal delegation is even aware of the proposed act.  Or its stated benefits.

At the core of the proposed 2015 Act is a combination federal legislation and policies including (in no particular order of importance) OMB Circular A-16, the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), and the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC).   Very government-like and uber confusing, a little background includes: In 1994, Executive Order 12906 was issued by President Clinton to direct the development of the NSDI.  Unfortunately, twenty-one years later,  many of the requirements of EO 12906 have never been acted on.  Circular A-16 was originally issued in 1953, revised in 1967, revised in 1990 (establishing the FGDC), and revised again in 2002 outlining specific federal agency obligations.  A-16 Supplemental Guidance was also issued in 2010. Similar to EO 12906, federal agencies have struggled to implement many of the provisions of OMB A-16 over the same period of time.

The August 2002 revision to Circular No. A-16 was particularly significant in context of naming the stewardship of over 30 data themes to federal agencies in support of both the NSDI and FGDC programs.  Specific datasets included:

 Biological Resources, Cadastral, Cadastral Offshore, Climate, Cultural and Demographic Statistics, Cultural Resources, Orthophotography, Earth Cover, Elevation Bathymetric, Elevation Terrestrial, Buildings and Facilities, Federal Lands, Flood Hazards, Geodetic Control, Geographic Names, Governmental Units, Geologic, Housing, Hydrology, International Boundaries, Law Enforcements Statistics, Marine Boundaries, Offshore Materials, Outer Continental Shelf Submerged Lands, Public Health, Public Land Conveyance, Shoreline, Soils, Transportation, Vegetation, Watershed boundaries and Wetlands.

While all data themes are clearly important in supporting the broad national NSDI efforts, most New York State local governments  have a limited number of day-to-day business work functions directly related to NSDI spatial data themes itemized in the 2002.  (In fact many of the 2002 NSDI spatial data themes are only developed and maintained by federal resources.)  Adding to the disconnect is that many 2015 local government GIS programs, especially in urban areas, have business needs which are not supported by either the content or spatial accuracy of core 2002 NSDI spatial data themes.  For example, local government geospatial programs in the areas of  infrastructure management (drinking water, sanitary sewer, and storm water systems), utilities, vehicle routing and tracking, permitting and inspection systems, service delivery programs in the health and human services, local planning, zoning, and economic development activities are not closely aligned with many of the 2002 NSDI spatial data themes.    While many federal mapping programs and geospatial datasets continue to be consistent at 1:24,000 (2000 scale), most local urban government GIS programs are built on top of large scale (i.e., 1”=100’ or even 1”=50’) photogrammetric base maps.

Not all is lost, however, as some local data products such as parcel boundaries and planimetrics (building footprints, hydrology, transportation) actually are consistent selected 2002 NSDI spatial data themes (Cadastral, Governmental Units, Hydrology, Geodetic Control, Transportation) albeit at a higher degree of accuracy.  Unfortunately, limited capacity or systems have been established to leverage or normalize such datasets into the NSDI.

Unfortunately, even though the federal government continues to identify and list local governments as key stakeholders in most legislative proposals, it’s common belief among federal agencies that resources are not available to monitor or engage local GIS programs (i.e., 3000 counties vs. 50 states).  And there continues to be the (wild) belief state level GIS programs can serve as the ‘middle man’ or conduit between local and federal geospatial programs.  Somehow magically rolling up local government data for use by federal agencies and integrated into the NSDI.  Not really.  At least here in New York State.   And no, old school NSDI Clearinghouses nor the current rage of soon-to-be-yesterday-news “Open Data” portals being equivalent mechanisms in supporting and maintaining 2002 A-16 data themes.

Perhaps sponsors of the Geospatial Act of 2015 could model collection of local government geospatial data assets after the ongoing efforts associated with the HIFLD (Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Data) program.   Though obviously a very different end product from the NSDI, federal agencies producing the HSIP (Homeland Security Infrastructure Protection) Gold and HSIP Freedom datasets have enjoyed relatively decent success in collecting large volumes of local government data – much of which has been paid for at the local level.  And many of the same federal agencies associated with the HIFLD program including National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Defense (DOD), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have stewardship responsibilities of NSDI spatial data themes.  Different.  But similar.   And adding more bewilderment to the discussion is that it is easier to contribute crowed sourced data (structures) to the USGS than it is for local governments to push large scale photogrammetric data of the same features (structures) to federal agencies and incorporated into the NSDI.

Georeferenced 2013 US Topo White Plains quadrangle.  While selected structures such as schools, fire houses and hospitals are identified on  default US Topo product, this image shows all Westchester County building footprints

Georeferenced 2013 US Topo White Plains quadrangle. While selected structures such as schools, fire houses and hospitals are identified on the default US Topo product, this image shows also shows how local content such as Westchester County building footprints can be made available to the NSDI structures data theme.

Unless a methodical and accepted process – adopted by pertinent local/state/federal stakeholders – is institutionalized  by the FGDC, the Geospatial Data Act of 2015 will continue to be more about federal and state geospatial programs and less about truly integrating and taking advantage of the vast amount of local government data.   The Act needs to specify and fund building work flows which communicate directly with the source of the data as well as working towards reducing the reliance on state “middle men” GIS programs as means to acquire local geospatial data. (Local governments were not even mentioned in a February 2015 General Accounting Office report entitled “GEOSPATIAL DATA: Progress Needed on Identifying Expenditures, Building and Utilizing a Data Infrastructure, and Reducing Duplicative Effort”.  A report which appears to be eerily similar and a rebaked version of the  (ill-fated) 2013 “Map It Once, Use It Many Times”   federal geospatial legislation attempting to reposition the federal effort to coordinate National geospatial data development.

Ironically, just one month prior to the Geospatial Data Act of 2015 being introduced, a scathing report was released by the Consortium of Geospatial Organizations (COGO) entitled “Report Card on the U.S. National Spatial Data Infrastructure”.  In short an overall “C-“ to NSDI effort over the past two decades.  The report falls short in not holding state GIS programs more accountable and responsible as well as most have  jockeyed over the past two decades to be seen as enablers and partners of the NSDI  effort in context of framework layer stewards, recipients of FGDC grants, and establishing/maintaining NSDI Clearinghouse nodes.  States supposedly as “middle men” and conduits to valuable local government geospatial data assets.   Perhaps COGO report cards on individual State government GIS programs are forthcoming.

At the end of the day, NSDI supporters actually do have access to a wide range of local government geospatial assets as files, consumable web services, or perhaps through some other middleware provided by a software vendor.   Or a combination of all the above.  The data and the technology are here.  To the end of furthering the intent of the NSDI, legislation like the Geospatial Act of 2015 will fall on deaf ears and not advance as it should unless the federal government establishes the means to directly engage and connect to local governments.

 

 

Opening the GIS Data Vault

The geospatial “open government” effort received a significant boost recently when the State of California Supreme Court ruled Orange County must grant access to its electronic mapping data without charging a licensing fee. The case was brought by the Sierra Club seeking access to mapping data in its fight to protect public land.  The case started in 2007, when the Sierra Club requested from Orange County a copy of its GIS parcel database, containing the location and layout of each legal parcel of land in the county. At that time, Orange County licensed copies of the parcel database to private companies and public agencies for $375,000. The county also required licensees to sign non-disclosure agreements preventing further distribution.  The California ruling augments one closer to home when in 2005 the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in a similar case involving – and against – the Town of Greenwich.  There are several other relevant GIS legal challenges in the states of Florida, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and here in New York (Suffolk County copyright on tax maps) which are summarized in an excellent   2012 State of Indiana GIS Conference presentation entitled “Legalities of GIS” (Sparks and Estes).

Also in July 2013, whether mere coincidence or bowing to years of pressure and in response to the California ruling, New York City’s Department of City Planning quit charging fees for one of the most-demanded city datasets: PLUTO.  PLUTO (Primary Land Use Tax Lot Output) contains detailed information about every piece of land in the city (http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/bytes/dwn_pluto_mappluto.shtml) including tax assessments, historic districts, year built, number of units, lot size, etc. Before doing so, users had to pay $1,500 ($300 per borough) for the first time and then again for every update.  Not only did urban research institutes, community groups, nonprofits and planning firms have to pay the city each year for access to the data, but also had to stay compliant with a 14-page license agreement that, among other things, forbid them from sharing the data or putting any part of it on the internet.

So what?  What does the California ruling and release of the NYC PLUTO data really mean to the broader New York State GIS community?  In the short term, probably little. However,  it does seem the time is nearing when various New York statewide GIS organizations can come together to discuss, and perhaps, set in motion an effort to challenge the practice of charging fees and/or licensing tax-payer funded GIS data.  And at the center of this discussion would inevitably be New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).  Granted the long procedure of litigation, appeals, etc., is costly requiring deep pockets for even those who have the financial resources and legal support to endure the lengthy process but there are potentially dozens of organizations – environmental, not-for-profits, business interests, even governments – which have been confronted with the GIS data fee/licensing issue and have an interest in the issue.

Also, any serious statewide discussion on removing barriers towards selling and licensing geospatial data will first have to include a major review, revision, or complete elimination of the 16-year old NYS GIS Data Sharing Cooperative, which by extension, administers Cooperative Data Sharing Agreements for governments and not-for-profits.  The agreement itself may conflict with the basic tenets of “open government” in that the agreement currently excludes industry and business as Cooperative members as well as including provisions which allow Cooperative members to sell or license their own data.
And as if the growing body of legal decisions mandating governments to make GIS data available for free (beyond the reasonable cost of reproduction) is not enough, there is also a plethora of examples documenting the financial benefits for making geospatial data available at no cost. Note the NYC BigApps 3.0 competition which challenges software developers to create apps that use city data to “make NYC better”.  The 3.0 competition included $50,000 prize money.  Similar efforts are underway in other metropolitan areas of the country including Portland, Oregon.   There is also the new Open New York data portal albeit how well the Socrata-based system integrates with the existing statewide GIS data infrastructure is to be seen.    A very timely and outstanding read on the benefits of making public GIS data open and free was recently published (April 2013) by MetroGIS (Minneapolis/St. Paul). The report contains a myriad of rational and financial justification on making GIS data available for free – including a multi-county breakdown illustrating on how little money is actually made by individual counties after factoring in the COSTS of administering their GIS sales/licensing programs.    Further reading can found in a similar 2011 National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) publication entitled “Geospatial Data Sharing:  Guidelines for Best Practices”.

In the long run, the charging of fees and licensing for tax payer funded geospatial data will ultimately be recognized as neither sustainable or cost effective.  Personnel and organizations will change as government programs are reduced, and to survive, must become more public and business friendly.  Organizations will simply not have the personnel and/or rational to administer data sharing and licensing agreements developed 10-20 years ago. Finally, although there will always be a few exceptions, the belief that the selling or licensing of data somehow supports operational elements of public GIS programs, or is a large money maker, will finally be proven otherwise.

However, to wait for the issue – or problem – to simply take care of itself and ultimately fade away is not the most prudent course of action.  As we can reasonably expect the continued high demand for government GIS datasets to continue, combined with the growing body of judicial cases and “open government” initiatives supporting unrestricted access, the time has come for the discussion, and action, to be taken seriously here in New York State.

Not-for-Profits Gone Spatial

Leveraging web-based technology to reach wider audiences, combined with fewer tax-payer funded GIS initiatives, and improved “open government” data portals has led to a growing body of geospatial work by the Not-for-Profit (NFP) sector within New York State.  Ranging from basic community based mapping programs to scholarly research efforts, these statewide contributions come from national based organizations, land trusts, conservation districts, and a range of local environmental groups.

Several active programs, which are typical of statewide NFP GIS efforts, are located in the lower Hudson River Valley.  The Westchester Land Trust is similar to other statewide land trusts using GIS technology to support business and advocacy programs.  Working closely with the Westchester County GIS program WLT utilizes GIS to inventory and map individual properties, supports local environmental groups GIS/mapping efforts, and to promote events such GIS Day.

The Saw Mill River Coalition also uses GIS datasets in conducting land use studies and mapping projects.  Many local governments have open space committees which use GIS to inventory open spaces (local, county, state parks, cemeteries, schools, gardens, etc.) and are now using GIS tools to identify linkages and corridors such as right-of-ways and easements to connect open spaces.   Digital tax maps, public infrastructure, and utility system networks are useful sources of information in identifying such corridors.

Nearby is Hudsonia, a not-for-profit environmental institute which focuses on environmental research, education, training and technical assistance throughout the Hudson River Valley.  GIS-based habitat mapping is one of its signature geospatial programs and is used by local municipalities.   The New York/New Jersey Trail Conference provides workshops and uses GPS and GIS, a portion of which is based on user collected X,Y (trail) data for hardcopy map production on hiking trails throughout southeastern New York/Northern New Jersey.

More detailed GIS analysis by a NFP includes ongoing work at Mohonk Preserve outside of New Paltz, New York where managers and scientists are using GIS to map the relationship between rare species and their habitat as well as describing the importance and changes in ecological communities.   Much of the geospatial work at Mohonk was detailed in the Winter 2011/2012 issue of ArcNews.  GIS support services are also provided and offered through the Cornell Cooperative Extension Dutchess County (CCEDC).

One of the largest NFP GIS mapping programs in the state is the OASIS  (Open Accessible Space Information System) program covering the metropolitan New York City area and located at the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research.  Its mission is to “help nonprofits, community groups, educators, students, public agencies, and local businesses develop a better understanding of their environment with interactive maps of open spaces, property information, transportation networks, and more.”   The OASIS project has gone beyond its original New York City geographic footprint and is now involved in similar mapping efforts beyond the metropolitan region.  Their homepage has an extensive listing of other NFP programs, which contribute, to the OASIS initiative in context of providing data and/or funding.

On a statewide level, illustrative NFP GIS programs include:

Scenic Hudson:  Developed in concert with both government and academia, Scenic Hudson developed the online Sea Level Rise Mapper (SLR) application which is intended to “create visualizations of future scenarios of sea level rise.”   With the maps created as part of the application, Scenic Hudson is supporting communities’ efforts to develop adaptation plan.  Data and mapping products integrated into the application are a combination of results from new analyses by Scenic Hudson and existing data from a variety of sources including NYS DEC, US EPA, US Census Bureau, Dr. Roger Flood (SUNY Stony Brook) and FEMA.

FracTracker: This non-profit organization is dedicated to enhancing the public’s understanding of the impacts of the oil and gas industry by collecting, interpreting, and sharing data. With the Marcellus and Utica Shales at the focus of this environmental issue, FracTracker employs in-house GIS technology capacity to distribute maps (PDF format) and data, as well as using ArcGIS.com for interactive mapping. “Maps are central to our grassroots outreach effort, helping us communicate the relevant environmental issues associated with important statewide issue” says Karen Edelstein, New York State FracTracker liaison.

The Nature Conservancy:   In conjunction with the New York Natural Heritage Program and funded though the Hudson River Estuary Program,   TNC conducted a project that combined a GIS prioritization framework with field assessment methods to identify and prioritize culverts and dams that are of biological importance in the Hudson River Estuary (HRE).  The goal of this project was to identify a suite of barriers whose removal would provide a meaningful biological benefit in the HRE.   In all, over 13,000 potential barriers were identified in the study.

The NFPs referenced in this post represent only a small portion of similar statewide organizations that contribute significantly to a wide range of applications, data, personnel, funding, and underlying geospatial infrastructure across the state.  As a side note, the recent release of the New York Protected Areas Database (NYPAD) illustrates yet another scenario as to how government agencies can partner with and use the NFP structure, and in this case academia, to further strategic GIS programs.  Similar initiatives are funded through the New York Natural Heritage Programs (NYNHP).  Given today’s government financial climate, such an initiative would be very difficult to complete and maintain solely with public agency resources.

While historically the primary role of NFPs in the geospatial arena has been as a consumer of taxpayer funded GIS data, their role is quietly changing to that of a producer.   Long term, improvements in quantifying their economic and scientific contribution to the statewide geospatial effort warrants continued recognition and discussion.

Schools & GIS

Over the past several years much discussion linking GIS technology to the educational community  (i.e., K-12, middle and high school, Community Colleges, and universities) has focused mainly on integrating GIS concepts into the classroom environment.  While industry leaders such as ESRI and Google have contributed significantly and helped advance this effort, there exist several other pertinent program areas in school systems which on many levels overlap and can benefit by integrating with traditional, or “nearby” government GIS programs.  Ironically, the rational for the government/school GIS collaboration – if not justification – is that school based geospatial-based programs are often competing for the same tax dollar, in the same municipality or county, traditional GIS programs are feverishly trying to secure.  Illustrative common areas include:

Transportation Systems:  For the unknowing, local school district transportation budgets can often be eye-popping totaling into the hundred thousands, if not millions of dollars.  Illustratively, a  quick survey of online school district budgets in Westchester County, New York found several transportation budgets in excess of $3 million, others in the neighborhood of $6 million, and one as high as $9 million.    (Comparatively, similar budgets will vary greatly across the state depending geographic size and location of  district).  While much of the transportation budget money is for buses, maintenance, personnel, fuel, and other assets, many New York State school districts are actively utilizing GIS-based software for routing, scheduling, and leveraging GPS technology to track and locate buses for both fixed route and Paratransit systems.   Geocoding, address verification, and even the need for the production of hardcopy maps are also common in most school transportation offices.  One of the more popular bus transportation software packages in the state is Transfinder which has a broad statewide school district client base and access to updated address databases through the NYS Data Sharing Cooperative (via their client, school districts, as members of the Cooperative).  Another Albany based company engaged in student/bus transportation systems is Versatrans (Tyler Technologies).   Interestingly, as of July 2013, approximately half (nearly 45%) of the 535 listed members in state data sharing cooperative local government category are school districts.

Demographic Analysis/Statistics:  Census data, population statistics, live birth figures, and similar datasets have long been a staple of government GIS programs to map and distribute. It is these same datasets school districts often use in concert with a plethora of planning and engineering consultants, to support a wide range of administrative, facility planning,  capital improvement, and long range strategic plans.  GIS software provides a powerful analytical tool in visualizing demographic-based datasets with other relevant district wide features such as public transportation systems, traffic patterns, critical infrastructure, parks/athletic complexes, location of educational service providers, and district ADA compliant buildings.  Local tax parcel boundary data, building footprints, and related assessment data,  which are in the stewardship of local government GIS programs, add a further level of analysis and visualization.   All combined – with the input and support of local GIS programs, GIS “mash-ups” can be created and made available to school district staff, school boards, and other community groups involved in school district programs.  Similarly, Westchester County GIS online mapping applications are used by the City of Mt. Vernon school district for address and residency verification.  Also, GIS software is increasingly being used to redistrict school district boundaries and individual school catchment areas.

Facilities Management/Safe Schools:  While many readily available software products such as Google Maps, Bing Maps, ArcGIS.com, and even Yahoo! Maps offer aerial views of school facilities and campuses, this imagery is routinely “leaf-on” and therefore can have important ground features covered or obscured.  Local government GIS programs are uniquely positioned to collaborate with schools in offering more detailed and higher resolution “leaf-off” imagery used in local base mapping projects.  Similar opportunities exist for local governments to collaborate with universities and colleges which are using GIS as a framework to support comprehensive facilities management plans.  Three  illustrative efforts in this regard are the  University of Rochester,  SUNY Albany and SUNY Cortland – each providing a basis for neighboring communities or organizations to cost-share in geospatial products such as orthophotography, LiDAR, or planimetric mapping, all of which are used in compiling campus facility base maps.  GIS data and mapping is also used in the development of school security plans.  Recent incidents at public schools and on college campuses have led to both federal and New York State initiatives which increase the opportunity for the GIS community to work with school administrators and local law enforcement agencies in developing security plans and related mapping products.

Many opportunities currently exist for GIS professionals to reach out to the educational community and identify joint geospatial programs and applications.  Building such strategic alliances with schools is budget wise and can result in the valuable cost sharing of applications, coordinating procurement of similar products such as aerial photography and planimetric features (building footprints, visible infrastructure features, topography, hydrology), or the effective design of common hardware and software infrastructure.  Looking forward, such proactive efforts on the part of the New York State GIS community will help nurture and build an important statewide partner and user constituency.

Multi-Government GIS

Over the past 25 years the success of the Westchester County GIS program can be attributed to several key factors that include ongoing administrative and political support, a common technology vision over many years of management leaders, as well as continuous years of superior GIS staff and technical support.  However, one of the most important and enduring elements has been the collaborative work between multiple governments – specifically between Westchester County and its 43 municipalities.

Early on and even before web technology and services had matured to what is available today, local governments, not-for-profits, and community groups realized cost efficiencies in utilizing Westchester County GIS products and services in helping build geospatial capacity within their organizations. While expansion of the County’s GIS infrastructure was slow and at times limited due to early desktop GIS client software, expansion and deployment has changed dramatically in the last 18-36 months with the increased availability of easy-to-use web viewers, access to data-rich map services, and local GIS datasets.

Westchester County is not the only current multi-agency or regional government GIS effort in the state.  One of the best and more visible examples of cost effective geospatial shared services is the Erie County GIS program which continues to provide a framework for providing and developing GIS capabilities for both Erie and Niagara Counties as well as selected neighboring towns.

Other illustrative and successful multi-agency/regional GIS programs include the Southern Tier Western Regional Planning & Development Board “Community GIS” serving Chautauqua, Cattaraugus & Allegheny Counties and the Seneca Nation of Indians. In northern New York State, encouraging efforts are being made by the Development Authority of the North Country towards building and expanding geospatial capacity for the villages of Heuvelton and Clayton, the Town of Clayton and Jefferson County.  Other illustrative statewide multi-government GIS programs include both the Dutchess County GIS program and the Tompkins County – City of Ithaca Interactive Maps collaboration.  These and other selected initiatives across the state have built multi-government GIS business plans with support from the New York State Local Government Efficiency Program (LGe) which provides funding for the development of projects that will achieve savings and improve municipal efficiency through shared services and cooperative agreements.

As government downsizing continues, opportunities to expand and build GIS capacity in local governments across New York State will often be most feasible and practical in a multi-government or regional framework where financial, technical and administrative support can be consolidated. Such initiatives will support similar business needs as well as common organizational and business requirements.

“Cloud” concepts now resonate and are understood, if not embraced, among elected officials and managers across governments.   The GIS infrastructure is now in place so that multiple governments can have data housed in one location, accessing web services from other government agencies, combining local content – all at the same time while using one of several free viewing clients such as ArcGIS Explorer, Gaia 3.0, and Google Earth 7).  Such “mash-up” configurations dramatically decrease the time building GIS data access and viewing capabilities.  While such viewers come with limited spatial analysis capabilities, there is nonetheless a significant reduction in hardware and software investments – which is often a major GIS implementation obstacle for small to mid-range sized governments and organizations across the state.

Geospatial technology has evolved such that there is a very limited or viable business case for every governmental organization to fund and support it’s own GIS program.  Shared Services is no longer a “nice to have” but rather the new government reality.  The New York State geospatial community will do well to embrace and promote this new paradigm towards building multi-government and cost-effective GIS programs.

Getting Started

eSpatially New York  focuses on geospatial technology development, current issues, and the broad range of geospatial users across the State of New York.  Illustrative issues to be highlighted include government programs, emerging technologies, business and industry leaders, and the use of geospatial applications in smaller markets such as schools and community based programs.