Access to Coastal Geospatial Data
The fundamental product of the multiplicity of federal, state, and local agencies, private companies, academic researchers, and others who collect or process coastal zone mapping products is data. These data are their raison d’etre and as such need to be accessible, accurate, timely, and useful. The application of information technology has allowed the development of tools and techniques that have greatly enhanced our ability to deal with data of all kinds. Almost all data to populate existing and future coastal geospatial databases will be digital and amenable to the application of modern tools for managing, manipulating, and processing data. Although there will undoubtedly continue to be efforts to rescue or transform older data, our emphasis in addressing data issues will substantially focus on digitally collected data.
It is often difficult to find coastal geospatial data and/or derived products. Once located, it is often difficult to judge the quality of the data or to understand the limitations that apply to their use. With differences in scales, datums, projections, formats, or resolution, the data are often difficult to handle and even more difficult to integrate. As well as the paucity of tools for analysis and manipulation of coastal zone data, there are often concerns about data currency because of the short-term temporal scales of many coastal zone processes.
This does not diminish the importance of the wide range of useful Web sites providing coastal zone geospatial data, together with tool kits to manipulate the data. Examples of such sites are those provided by the National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) Geophysical Data System
(GEODAS), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Coastal and Marine Program, the Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) Geospatial Information Database (GIDB) Portal Web Client, and the sites supported by the Coastal Services Center (CSC; e.g., the Ocean Planning Information System [OPIS]). Although each of these groups provides valuable access to data and tools, they still represent only a small percentage of data collected in the coastal zone, and there is an urgent need for a substantial effort to expand on the examples set by these organizations.
NATIONAL STANDARDS AND PROTOCOLS
As the committee evaluated the current status of data access and availability, the path ahead was clear. There is a need for the establishment of national (and perhaps even international) standards and protocols for data collection, metadata creation, and tools for data transformation and integration. With these, the user community would be able to evaluate the accuracy and timeliness of data, change scales and projections, and seamlessly merge disparate datasets. Most importantly, database and data integration tools must be easily accessible to all users, public and private, from a single digital portal accessible through the Internet.
In exploring strategies for implementing this vision, the committee was often reminded that a mechanism already exists that should have made much of this vision a reality. This mechanism—Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-16 (a directive describing federal agency roles and responsibilities with respect to geospatial data) and the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) it established—demands many of the processes that the committee has recommended. The FGDC is a federal interagency committee, operating under the auspices of the OMB, with responsibility for facilitating and coordinating federal activities related to geospatial data (see Box 5.1). Recognizing the national importance of geospatial data, the lack of generally accepted standards, and the potential for duplication and inefficiencies in spatial data collection and distribution, the FGDC formally defined the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) in 1994. A series of National Research Council reports (NRC, 1993; 1994b; 1995b; 2001) advocated creation of the NSDI and recommended activities and initiatives that the FGDC could undertake to increase awareness, involvement, and usefulness of the NSDI. The OMB recently reissued Circular A-16 to bring it up to date for the 21st century (OMB, 2002). Many of the concerns brought up by the coastal zone user community and noted by the committee are directly addressed by Circular A-16, including the establishment of national standards, interchange formats, and metadata standards for geospatial data; the assurance of compatibility and interchangeability of datasets; the coordination of
The FGDC is a federal interagency committee, operating under the auspices of the OMB, responsible for facilitating and coordinating the activities of the NSDI. The NSDI encompasses policies, standards, and procedures for organizations to cooperatively produce and share geographic data. The 19 federal agencies that make up the FGDC are developing the NSDI in cooperation with organizations from state, local, and tribal governments, the academic community, and the private sector. The NSDI is relevant to any agency that collects, produces, acquires, maintains, distributes, uses, or preserves analog or digital spatial data, including all Geographic Information System (GIS) activities, that are financed directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, by federal funds.
Different federal agencies have lead responsibilities for the various spatial data themes. For example, the USGS is responsible for all geologic mapping information and related geoscience spatial data; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is responsible for offshore bathymetry and shoreline delineation. Lead agencies are required to populate each data theme, principally by developing partnership programs with states, tribes, academia, the private sector, and other federal agencies, and also by facilitating the development and implementation of FGDC standards for each theme.
In order to build and support the NSDI, any agencies that collect, use, or disseminate geographic information and/or carry out related spatial data activities are required, both internally and through their activities involving partners, grants, and contracts, to:
data collection, data maintenance, and data dissemination; and the establishment of a national clearinghouse for geospatial data.
The NSDI National Clearinghouse concept has been incorporated into an OMB E-government1 initiative called “Geospatial One-Stop,” to provide a single national focal point for FGDC-compliant geospatial data. Geospatial One-Stop was established to provide standards and models for geospatial framework data, an interactive index to geospatial data holdings at federal and non-federal levels, interaction among federal, state, and local authorities about existing and planned spatial data collections, and a single on-line access point to geospatial data. It is the intention that tools will be provided to allow the migration of current non-compliant data to FGDC standards (FGDC, 2002).
The NSDI concept and the Geospatial One-Stop initiative are admirable and, in principle, go a long way toward addressing the frustrations expressed by the coastal zone user community. However, implementation of the NSDI appears to have been, and continues to be, problematic for this community. Although there is a broad awareness of the principles of the NSDI among federal agencies, there seems to be highly variable commitment to concurring with its requirements by different agencies and a lack of incentive to fully implement its principles. This is most readily apparent for the issue of standards, where there are concerns that a single set of standards may not be able to serve all applications and that those developing the standards may at times be too far removed from the user community, and/or that standards sometimes appear too complex for easy implementation and users are unaware of existing tools to simplify the implementation.
For example, rather than follow the FGDC’s Content Standard for Digital Geospatial Metadata, agencies and research groups often create their own, less complex internal standards or in some cases do not write metadata at all, citing higher priorities and/or lack of resources and time. This defeats the purpose of Geospatial One-Stop, since those agencies or groups not writing FGDC-compliant metadata are unable to participate in NSDI clearinghouses, which require compliance with the FGDC standard.
Perhaps a more reasonable approach would be to seek stronger involvement from the private sector by contracting key aspects of standards development—and the tools to facilitate adoption of standards (see Box 5.2)—to the private sector and to allow agency procurement processes
“E-government”—an abbreviation for “Expanding Electronic Government”—is the initiative overseen by OMB to expand electronic transactions, reduce paperwork, and make government services available using the Internet; see http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/egov/2003egov_strat.pdf.
Various geospatial data standards have been developed to effectively implement the NSDI. Among them are:
Vendors do not create these standards or profiles, but do greatly speed their adoption by incorporating them into their software products. For example, ESRI’s flagship GIS product—ArcGIS—embraces several current standards that are pervasive throughout the information technology arena, including the FGDC metadata standard and the Spatial Data Transfer Standard, as well as Web standards such as Extensible Markup Language (XML) and the Unified Modeling Language (UML, the standard notation for the modeling of real-world objects for object-oriented databases and GIS applications). In terms of metadata, if the user is already using ArcGIS for most data display, analysis, and map creation, the metadata documentation tool already in ArcCatalog will allow an FGDC-compliant metadata record to be written on the spot.
The ArcSDE application within ArcGIS for dealing with large spatial databases operates with commercial database management systems and supports a variety of formats, including those from standards bodies such as the OpenGIS Consortium (OGC) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and de facto standard industry formats such as Oracle Spatial, Informix Spatial DataBlade, and IBM Spatial Extender.
This is also true of CARIS and its line of hydrographic production database and GIS software, which also fully supports the International Hydrographic Office’s S-57 Transfer Standard for Digital Hydrographic Data, the S-52 Specifications for Chart Content and Display, and the production of S-57 Electronic Nautical Charts (ENCs). CARIS Spatial Data Fusion provides Web filters that help users access data from various clearinghouses without needing to know anything about the specific standards or formats of the data in those clearinghouses.
to continually encourage the private sector to deliver needed products in a timely fashion. As an example, the FGDC and the FGDC Marine and Coastal Spatial Data Subcommittee Web sites do not yet have links to the international S-57 Transfer Standard for Digital Hydrographic Data, critical to successful U.S. nautical charting. However, this standard is already fully supported in several private-sector GIS products, including very effective tools for converting non-standard data into compliant forms.
As noted earlier, there are a number of excellent Web sites that are currently distributing geospatial data nationwide with FGDC-compliant metadata.2 However, these are too distributed and limited in their content. The committee strongly supports the development of a single portal specifically for all coastal mapping and charting data and derived products within the framework of Geospatial One-Stop. This concept does not require a single site that contains all coastal data but rather a single focal point that can link to distributed databases that all support FGDC-compliant data and to tools that can convert non-compliant data into compliant data. This site would represent the one place where users, particularly new users, can consistently and reliably begin their searches for data and derived products. A single access point should also promote easy and timely data entry.
An excellent example of this approach is NRL’s Geospatial Information Database (GIDB) Web Portal Client (Harris et al., 2003; see Box 5.3). The U.S. National Guard Counter Drug Program is currently using a version of the GIDB Portal System technology as the basis for its Digital Mapping Server (DMS) portal in support of drug enforcement agents and agencies. This technology is also in use at NGA’s Gateway SIPRNET site, allowing dissemination of local file system information at the NGA Gateway as well as integrating that information with multiple other non-NGA sources. In 2004 the GIDB technology will be implemented as the oceanographic, meteorological, and environmental data delivery system for the U.S. Navy.
Effectively sharing data means more than just the ability to download a file. Many valuable datasets and excellent analytical tools available on the Internet are underused and thus do not fulfill their potential. This may be due to the fact that the existence and/or purpose of the data may not be well known by the user community. It also may be due to a lack of understanding by users either of how to access and use the datasets or of data limitations. Therefore, in addition to metadata, information is needed
For example, several coastal/ocean examples are cataloged at http://buccaneer.geo.orst.edu/links/.
The NRLs Geospatial Information Database (GIDB) Portal System is a standards-based portal for geospatial information discovery, access, and mapping over the Internet (Harris et al., 2003). The system gathers heterogeneous environmental data from disparate databases distributed across the Internet, and this information can then be displayed in a “GIS-like” fashion for data overlay and comparison using NRLs or other popular viewers. Data can be exported in several formats for use in analysis packages.
A sample GIDB Portal System thick-client display showing integrated cloud cover, meteorological information, mineral locations, and other sources. Image courtesy of the NRL.
The portal system was developed in Java for platform portability, to allow data of any origin to be distributed and displayed on mainframe, personal computer, and Personal Data Assistant (PDA) clients. An open source, Java database management system is also available for deployments requiring custom data storage. The GIDB Portal System presently connects the user to 128 servers, including over 800 services across the United States, and the system is government owned and requires no licensing. This portal system technology, accessible at http://dmap.nrlssc.navy.mil, has been under development at NRL for many years with support from multiple sponsors, including the Office of Naval Research (ONR), NRL, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR).
to describe the appropriate use and limitations of data and derived products. Again, many of these issues are addressed under the NSDI and Geospatial One-Stop, so the fundamental issue becomes a question of identifying ways to make the NSDI and Geospatial One-Stop concepts nationally accepted. A recent report (NRC, 2001) concluded that although the FGDC was successful both in improving access to data through the National Clearinghouse and in beginning to establish content standards for geospatial metadata, little evidence could be found for reduced redundancy and diminished costs associated with data creation or maintenance, for improved accuracy of data, or for any removal of the significant institutional barriers inhibiting the development and maintenance of geospatial data.
In an assessment of the significance of coastal and marine data in the context of the NSDI, Lockwood and Fowler (2000) noted that, although there is an Executive Order to prescribe federal compliance with the NSDI, there are neither any real means of enforcement nor a process to monitor compliance. They also point out that the federal agencies are given some leeway in determining which data might contribute to the NSDI, with OMB Circular A-16 using terms like “most expeditious,” “with available resources,” and “practical and economical to do so.” They cite the need for individual agencies to understand the broader context and the potential benefits that sharing geospatial data can bring in support of their individual mandates, as well as the lack of resources for participation in the NSDI, as further impediments to its success.
The FGDC has recognized problems with implementation of a national strategy for geospatial data. In an effort to improve federal coordination of geospatial data, the FGDC commissioned a design study team to evaluate actions and priorities that the FGDC must address (FGDC, 2000). Based on discussions and interviews with many people within the member agencies of FGDC, the team recognized that there were problems of lack of support and appreciation of the NSDI by senior officials in most of the agencies involved and that there were still problems with interagency coordination and development of NSDI framework layers. To address these issues the team recommended:
Raising geospatial data awareness to the policy level, to ensure that a clear vision of the NSDI must be presented that is understood by policy makers;
Identification of full-time coordinators in each agency, with a commitment by senior agency officials to support the goals of Circular A-16;
Greater pressure from OMB;
Clarification of individual responsibilities for national data stewardship;
Restructuring of the FGDC to have it report to the Director of USGS, evaluate and modify the current subcommittee structure and responsibilities, and focus FGDC staff on interagency non-partisan brokering with federal agencies;
Establishing management and oversight accountability that must involve OMB.
The committee is fully supportive of these recommendations, but disappointed that—as a consequence of its mandate—the design team could not focus on the role that the private sector potentially could play in furthering the goals of the NSDI.
MORE THAN JUST A WEB PORTAL
The establishment of a single portal for coastal geospatial data, together with a series of support tools for data transformation, processing, and integration, will go a long way toward addressing many of the concerns of this committee and the user community. Such tools and databases must also be supported by education and training, so that the user community understands and appreciates the limitations of the various datasets and their appropriate application. Documentation describing the data collection methods and processing tools used (beyond the brief descriptions provided by metadata) must be made available to the community. For example, the USGS Seafloor Mapping Group Web site3 provides excellent background information on the various acoustic methods used to collect mapping data offshore. The new Oregon Coastal Atlas4 has similar information about data collection and processing, in addition to providing data.
Training courses and workshops for users are also essential, and agency efforts should be expanded to provide users of their information with the knowledge and tools necessary for intelligent application of the data. The CSC has paved the way in providing these services to users, and these services should either be utilized more effectively by other agencies or be used as a model for other agencies to emulate in transforming their data into useful information.