Department of Interior

Recommendations and Actions

DOI03: Establish a National Spatial Data Infrastructure


The federal government has a unique opportunity to coordinate and manage partnerships with private industry and state and local governments to develop what promises to be one of the most important information technologies of the 21st century, the national spatial data infrastructure (NSDI). NSDI refers to digital, spatial (geographic) data that will eventually replace the analog maps of the past.

These digital maps of the future will be essential to analyze and depict environmental information (geographic distribution of endangered species, monitoring of wetlands) and, more generally, hydrology, soils, agriculture, climate, geology, transportation, and urban development throughout the United States. NSDI will play an integral role in the Administration's information infrastructure investment and information highway.

In an April 1993 report, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) stated: "...improvements in NSDI are critical to the maintenance of a competitive position for the United States in an increasingly international economic arena."[Endnote 1] An estimated $8-10 billion per year are spent on spatial, digital data worldwide. Federal agencies currently spend an estimated $4 billion per year on geographic data acquisition. These expenditures will increase in the future, but currently, the framework to obtain, catalog, and transmit this information is in an ad hoc, largely incoherent state.

Data collection is duplicated at the federal, state, local, and private levels for different purposes (e.g., transportation planning and water resource management). Moreover, different entities (e.g., federal and local agencies) are often unaware that much needed data have already been acquired by another party. Even when specific spatial data are known to exist, non-standardized collection procedures and lack of easy access often restrict their use.

NSDI would enable analysts and decisionmakers to integrate diverse geographic information. For example, a county land manager, who is considering possible uses of a given tract of land, could overlay the following digital maps:

--ownership boundaries,



--population density,

--urban development, and


Using a desktop computer, the land planner could access information needed to determine how the land can be used and protected. Other spatial data users, such as a transportation planner or a power company, could use some of these digital maps in combination with another set of digital maps. In terms of applications, spatial data should know no boundaries. A coordinated effort at all levels of governments would yield nonduplicative, multipurpose spatial data.

With limited resources in the 1990s, the federal government must seek innovative ways to pursue NSDI. Effective government policy should promote partnerships involving cost-sharing and data-sharing. The federal government needs to avoid establishing a bureaucratic organization to lead NSDI. Instead, the independent users--federal agencies, states, counties, cities, private companies--should be included in the process of collecting and disseminating spatial data.

The principal federal role is to lead the development of NSDI and to coordinate its implementation. Currently, the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), led by the Department of the Interior (DOI), is authorized by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-16 to coordinate federal agency involvement in NSDI.[Endnote 2] FGDC needs to be strengthened as the principal federal mechanism to coordinate mapping, surveying, and related spatial data activities. Key issues that need to be addressed by FGDC include:

--establishing standards for data collection and cataloging;

--developing federal policy for creating cost-sharing partnerships;

--identifying and creating a plan to produce core data sets that will form the basic framework of NSDI;

--identifying thematic data sets that will have specific applications; and

--creating a clearinghouse for finding, accessing, and sharing spatial data.

In addition to leading the national effort, the federal government will be a major provider of spatial data through its various agencies (especially Interior, Commerce, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautic and Space Administration, Transportation, Defense, and Agriculture). DOI (in particular, the U.S. Geological Survey) has always been a leader in mapping natural resources and will be a major player in the evolution of NSDI.[Endnote 3]


1. The leadership role of the FGDC should be strengthened beyond its original charter of OMB Circular A-16. Federal agencies should be instructed to participate fully in FGDC activities by providing adequate staff support and high-level committee representation.

FGDC should create and implement common procedures and standards for data collection (content, quality, and other characteristics). Adherence to these standards should be a condition of budget approval and apply to all expenditures of federal resources for geospatial data production, including those allocated to state and local governments or the private sector. FGDC should participate in an OMB-led budget crosscut (i.e., a governmentwide budget for geospatial activities) for fiscal year 1995 to assure a coordinated and coherent federal effort.

2. The federal government should establish, through FGDC, a program by June 1994, to form partnerships with state and local governments and the private sector with the goal of having a 50 percent or higher non-federal cost share for new or enhanced activities.

Federal-state partnerships can be modeled after the 50/50 joint funding agreements that the U.S. Geological Survey has with state governments to produce topographic maps and data. Federal-private partnerships should be based on Cooperative Research and Development Agreements.

3. The FGDC should submit a schedule and funding plan to OMB by September 1994, for completing the collection and production of national core geospatial data by January 2000.

Core data refer to information that nearly all users of spatial data technologies require to accurately locate features on the earth's surface. Such information forms an underlying framework from which other data sets may be derived or to which other data sets can be referenced. Core data include geodetic, topographic, hydrographic, land survey, and transportation data.

4. The FGDC should identify thematic data sets of critical national importance and establish priorities, standards, and a funding plan by September 1994, based on partnerships for collection of these data.

Thematic data, although not required for developing other data sets, are critical to solve specific problems of national significance (e.g., wetlands, endangered species, and seismic).

5. By June 1994, the FGDC should create a geospatial data clearinghouse, which will use existing computer networks, to provide public access to spatial data.

FGDC should identify an incentive system to encourage sharing of data and discourage redundancy in data collection. One possible incentive could be a partial federal rebate for the costs of data collection.

An Executive Order may be required to implement the above recommendations.


FGDC is an organization consisting of representatives from the federal geospatial data community. Until now, the organization has been mostly limited to setting standards, coordinating efforts, and consensus-building for general policy. The recommendations will significantly strengthen FGDC by specifying enforcement authority and setting clear policy goals.

From the perspective of reinventing government, the question is what role should the federal government have in NSDI? In the past, a technology of such vital, national, economic interest would have involved massive federal investment. However, today, the magnitude of money needed for such an investment is unavailable. An alternative is for the federal government to forge cost-sharing partnerships horizontally among federal agencies, vertically between state and local governments, and, most importantly, with the private sector to leverage the federal dollars already being spent on spatial data. Additional federal investments could be tiered by considering the value of the data and the degree of nonfederal cost-sharing.


The fiscal impact of NSDI is difficult to determine for several reasons. First, the value of digital data in existing applications is just beginning to be measured. Second, as spatial data become more common, new applications with immeasurable value will be realized. Third, the value of foresight (e.g., coordinating efforts to avoid waste and duplication) is difficult to measure. However, some attempts have been made to estimate benefits resulting from digital data being used in existing applications. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that $309 million in benefits will accrue between 1994- 2000 by accelerating the digitization of one map series (i.e., 7.5-minute quadrangles). The estimated benefits represent only federal government cost savings; the benefits associated with new applications and reduction in duplication are not included in the benefit estimates.

As noted previously, significant resources are already being spent on digital, spatial data in the United States. These expenditures will rapidly increase regardless of the above proposal. Whatever the level of resources allotted to spatial data activities in the future, implementation of the recommendations would greatly increase the return on investment. Although some additional expense could be incurred by converting existing data to a new standard, this will be more than compensated by advantages such as cost partnerships and data- sharing. Given the current growth rate of expenditures, future savings for the federal government from cost partnerships alone could be billions of dollars over the next decade. The sharing of data among federal agencies and other organizations will yield undetermined large savings for the federal government and its partners in NSDI. The development of plans in the recommendations will be budget-neutral.

Although NSDI plans can be developed at nominal cost, implementation of the plans would require additional resources. These costs cannot be accurately determined until actual plans are developed. However, some approximate estimates of expenditures can be made on the basis of different scenarios. A minimal approach to NSDI, involving only data standards and a clearinghouse, would cost about $4 million annually in new federal support. An additional $2 million would be required from federal agencies to provide support to FGDC activities.

Acquisition of a basic national data set for identified high priority areas, with significant non- federal cost-sharing, would cost about $20-$30 million annually. A more ambitious approach, which would accelerate collection of thematic data (e.g., national wetlands and biodiversity mapping) and include core data for moderate priority areas, would require $50-$75 million annually in new federal investment. Although these figures seem large, they are small compared to what would be spent if the federal government proceeds with an uncoordi-nated effort.

	   Budget Authority (BA) and Outlays
		 (Dollars in Millions) 
 Fiscal Year
 		1994  1995  1996  1997  1998  1999  Total
 BA*		6.0   	6.0   	6.0   	6.0   	6.0   	6.0   	36.0
 Outlays	6.0   	6.0   	6.0   	6.0   	6.0   	6.0   	36.0
 Change in
 FTEs		   5       5	  5	   5 	   5 	  5	    5
 * Includes costs for data standards and 
 clearinghouse; excludes costs for accelerated data 


1. See National Academy of Sciences, Toward a Coordinated Spatial Data Infrastructure for the Nation (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993).

2. See Federal Geographic Data Committee, Newsletter, No. 1 (Washington, D.C., Spring 1993).

3. Interview with Dallas Peck, Director, and Doyle Frederick, Associate Director, U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia, July 2, 1993.

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