There are multiple reasons why federal data are so valuable. They are ubiquitous, by and large available for every place in the country. Federal data are also uniform in nature, and their characteristics are well documented; therefore these data are comparable over large areas of the country. Federal data are generally of high quality, defined as appropriateness, consistency, timeliness, and relevant level of geographic and topical detail. Federal data are essentially available free of charge. Federal rules require that federally obtained data be provided to the public at no cost other than data processing fees. The United States exemplifies a commitment to the distribution of data, especially spatial data at no cost. Many believe our easy access to information has provided public and private organizations in the United States with an enormous advantage in the new economy based on information and information technology.

It is reasonable to think of data as infrastructure in an information age; accordingly, a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) was designated by executive order in 1994. A major component of NSDI required all federal agencies to develop plans for making their data available to the public (NRC, 1993, 1994, 1995). As federal agencies amplify their efforts to provide data to the public, data partnership among various levels of government have evolved. Much of this change was driven by federal agencies’ realization that insufficient resources were available at the federal level to complete any national data program at a scale that would work for place-based decision making. From the local level, the realization came that cost and work sharing with the federal government was a good way to get the data needed for local decision making.

The NSDI has been enormously successful in providing a wide range of useful data. At the core of the NSDI are seven “framework” data layers: geodetic control, ortho-imagery, elevation, transportation, hydrography, governmental units, and some cadastral information. The original concept spoke of critical thematic data and included such additional data as demographics, soil type, land use, and wetlands. Seven years later we have 1:12,000-scale ortho-imagery for most of the United States, along with 1:24,000-scale digitally scanned topographic maps and a 30-meter digital elevation model (see Box 5.2 for definition of “scale”). Large portions of the National Wetland Inventory are mapped at 1:24,000, and steps have been taken to accelerate the national county soil-mapping program. In addition, the Census Bureau continues to deliver high-quality, high-resolution decennial Census data. The Census Bureau has also conceptualized the new American Community Survey, which would represent a large step in the direction of providing data for place-based decision making.

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