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Worldwide Trends on
Geographic Information Systems

by Sally Matthews
Program Director
Office of Intergovernmental Solutions

Geospatial information and associated technologies are integrating information in exciting, new ways and creating an information revolution. Today's applications provide maps in minutes, monitor crime in neighborhoods, aid communities in recovering from disasters, integrate land records, and help states maintain roads and bridges. The future holds the promise of linking video data and aerial photography to GIS. Scientific data, ecological and environmental models, and social and economic models are being linked together to help governments make policy decisions. Progress depends on the collaboration and coordination of Federal, State, and local governments; academia; and the private sector.

Many groups and agencies are involved. In this newsletter we included as many organizations as possible but space limitations prevented us from covering them all. At the Federal level, more than 40 agencies are significantly involved in GIS activities. Federal agencies are beginning to provide nationally consistent geospatial data and develop such applications as the Great Lakes Ecological Assessment project that integrate geographic information. In the Department of Defense, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency is building a warehouse of accurate geospatial data and information. Not only will the user be able to get maps, but through 3-D visualization, it will be possible to actually rehearse military actions prior to execution.

The Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) is coordinating the development of a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) and promoting the sharing of geospatial data on a national basis. The U.S. Geological Survey is leading an effort to develop a National Biological Information Infrastructure that serves as the biological component of the NSDI. The OpenGIS Consortium is promoting the development of software specifications that support interoperability. The National Science Foundation is providing support for basic research. The University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) is looking at improving GIScience education, and establishing and prioritizing research topics. At the international level, countries are embarking on setting their own national spatial data strategies.

Geographic information systems have developed from the need to process information for maps to the much more complex integration of geo-referenced data. The GIS software industry has grown to annual sales of around
$1 billion. The user community numbers in the hundreds of thousands and users are increasingly able to obtain their data from the Web.

Authors of the articles in this newsletter describe the numerous issues and trends surrounding GIS. The following summarizes the major trends:

  • The technology has moved from mainframe application with difficult-to-learn software tools to distributed systems relying on easier-to-use tools, open architectures, standards, and interoperability.
  • "The need for geographic information is booming; some have called it a geospatial revolution. The improved use of geospatial data and geographic information technology can help our Nation improve the opportunity for all citizens to participate in community-driven solutions while better meeting crucial Federal responsibilities. For example, as part of stronger efforts to achieve smart, sustainable growth in cities, suburbs, and rural areas, Vice President Gore recently announced several initiatives to help communities gain access to and participate in the NSDI." John Moeller, Federal Geographic Data Committee
  • "There is a continuing need for Federal geographic data integration" and a "necessity for increased decentralization of geographic information system applications." National Academy of Public Administration
  • "Geospatial warehouses connected to application servers that in turn connect to thin and chubby clients are a definite trend.... There is no question that what the end user will see at the end of the wire will be smaller, faster, cheaper and easier to use." James Farley, University of Arkansas
  • Information costs will decrease. For example, Pennsylvania is developing an application for installing and maintaining road signs. When the system is operational statewide, about one hour will be saved on the average for each work or sign order. This translates to 12,200 man-hours and a savings of $378,000 annually.

In summary, technology-driven GIS involve many major organizations. Significant resources are being applied. The technology and applications, through standards, are helping to bring together Federal, State, and local governments with similar needs. In addition, each citizen is being affected in a variety of ways. It is possible to see yet another building block being added to the concept of "electronic democracy."

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