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Florida Works to Increase the Value of Geospatial Data Through Statewide GIS Coordination

High resolution statewide orthoimagery: $4,000,000. Web-based GIS to serve the data: $400,000. Staff to maintain and administer the GIS: $100,000. Ready access to geospatial data during a natural disaster: priceless... When planned for properly, geospatial data is an investment that can help save lives. And because it supports multiple public sector functions—economic development, urban planning, and resource management, to name a few—the return on investment grows each time data is shared among local, state, and federal government agencies. This spring, Fugro EarthData worked with the State of Florida to finalize a strategic plan that lays the foundation for a strong statewide GIS coordination effort.

Fifty States Initiative
Increasing the value of geospatial data by avoiding wasteful duplication of effort is a primary goal of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) Fifty States Initiative. This effort, launched in 2005 by the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) in cooperation with the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC), aims to build more efficient and productive geospatial programs by coordinating GIS efforts at the state level. And it is a big undertaking. That half the states meet fewer than six of the nine characteristics considered necessary for effective statewide GIS coordination (such as full-time paid GIS coordinator, political or executive-level champion, sustainable funding sources, etc.) illustrates the difficulty of the task.

"Communities' geospatial needs are diverse—they have different accuracy needs, different funding cycles, and different priorities. Technology may be ready to serve GIS at a state level, but for it to work well, you need the user community invested in the effort," said Martin Roche, general manager of Fugro EarthData's Solutions Division. Having just facilitated the development of a strategic statewide GIS coordination plan for the State of Florida, Roche understands these challenges fist-hand.

Finding Leadership
The first step toward statewide GIS coordination is determining who will spearhead the initiative. Often this role is taken on by a state information technology or information resources department; land records and planning departments also are common. But, as evidenced by Florida's effort, sometimes need drives this leadership. Unsatisfied with response to the devastating 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, the Florida Department of Emergency Management (FDEM) recognized a problem with GIS coordination and stepped up to take responsibility for better improving the State's situation. In addition to launching a major statewide lidar mapping program, FDEM is leading the statewide GIS coordination planning efforts.

Building Support
Leadership extends beyond the agency managing the coordination effort. It requires participation from federal, state, and local governments, nonprofit organizations, private sector businesses, and universities. "Steering committees in particular are instrumental to the success of statewide coordination," Roche said. "In Florida, this was one of our biggest advantages—a motivated cross-section of individuals from within the GIS user community all committed to the single goal of advancing a successful and sustainable plan for statewide GIS coordination." This kind of enthusiasm and dedication breeds support throughout the entire user community. It also gets attention from political leaders and executive-level decision makers, a necessity for funding and institutional backing.

Addressing Concerns
Even in states like Florida, however, where support was early and straightforward, initiating a large-scale coordination effort isn't easy. In addition to being time consuming and labor-intensive, it requires managing at least some level of opposition. "Some resistance is expected. Most often, though, the struggle isn't about the end goal, it's about what happens along the way," Roche said. "The idea of pooling resources and adopting another group's data standards and conventions can be threatening. What works fine for one group may not work well for the next and people can understandably adopt the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' mentality."

In these cases providing an outsider's view of what has worked in other states, along with what hasn't worked, helps. "It is important to hear the concerns," Roche explained. "Outreach is a major component of strategic planning and it means not only educating users about the potential benefits of statewide coordination, but identifying potential pitfalls, as well." In Florida, the steering committee reached nearly 1,000 users with Fugro EarthData's help through its outreach efforts, including providing information at regional GIS user group meetings, hosting half-day regional workshops, and issuing an online survey.

Following Through
The result of Florida's initial coordination efforts is a strategic plan that blends objectives from the Fifty States Initiative into a series of technological, policy, human resources, and organizational recommendations. "In Florida, we were able to accomplish a lot in a very short timeframe. The new challenge is to follow through and make good on the objectives set forth in the plan," Roche said. Success will be easily measured. As of 2007, Florida met just two of the nine characteristics for successful coordination identified by NSGIC. The new strategic plan lays a framework for increasing this amount to eight within 1 year, which means soon Florida could be one of those success stories shared with other states working toward statewide GIS coordination.