Integrating GIS: A Grassroots Integration Story

Loraine Lawson

Today, I'd like to take a break from the usual integration stories to bring you something completely different: A feel-good integration story.


While perusing Government Computer News, I stumbled across an interesting and frankly, national, integration problem, which is being handled in a very grassroots, creative way.


No doubt, you're familiar with geographic information systems. Government agencies at all levels use GIS for all sorts of interesting things, from managing traffic flow, responding to emergencies and natural disasters. GIS is even used to track the planting of new trees, according to the article.


But like most things technical, GIS apps were often built in isolation, by individual development teams who used a variety of development tools, geospatial engines and databases. Predictably enough, this means these GIS apps often can't share data or maps with one another. For instance, while two adjacent counties or states may have these wonderfully detailed maps on traffic flows, they can't match up the maps to create an even bigger wonderful map.


The situation is more than a major integration bummer-it's an obstacle to effectively managing things like regional natural disasters, security problems and environmental issues. You know-serious stuff of national interest.


It seems like the perfect opportunity for an expensive, far-reaching federal IT project, right?


But as it turns out, that's not what's happening. Instead, state and regional groups are working in small groups across the country to solve GIS integration problems. The federal government is involved, often giving the state efforts grant money, but without the heavy-handed directives you might expect.


One impressive example is Virtual Alabama, which is bringing together data and query tools from more than 1,200 local and state agencies. The Alabama Department of Homeland Security conceived of and launched the project, but its seed money came from the federal Department of Homeland Security. Virtual Alabama brings together geocoded imagery of statewide properties, plus the location of gas stations, schools, power lines, and so on. The article notes it even integrates video feeds from highways and other public places.


These types of projects extend across state lines, too. Seven southern states-including those hardest hit by hurricanes-are now working on integrating their GIS systems. Idaho is also partnering with Washington and Oregon on integrating data about natural resources, and this year, Illinois and Indiana received a federal grant from the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) for a GIS integration project.


Not surprisingly, technology is the easiest component of these GIS integration projects. The real buggaboo is the politics of the data-who controls the information, which information can be shared, and what other agencies can do with the data, and, of course, who pays for what. All of which are important questions, when you consider how GIS data could be used.


But that's how it always is, even in private corporations. What's exciting here is what solving this integration challenge could mean for the nation. These small integration projects could eventually be integrated into a national GIS system.


It's also proof that innovation doesn't always come from the private sector and that even small agencies can work together to make a big difference.

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