|National mapping agencies are unique. Their role and value is changing, influenced by numerous factors including public demands, changing government priorities and initiatives as well as ongoing business, military, environmental and other needs.
First we need to identify and define what a national mapping agency is, since, one does not find the term ‘XYZ Mapping Agency’ too often. In most countries, there is a national agency that has the primary responsibility for mapping. In the United States it is the USGS, in the UK it is the Ordnance Survey, in Canada it is Natural Resources Canada and in Germany it is the Bundesamt für Kartographie und Geodäsie. Other countries will have their own agencies.
The national agencies are usually associated with geodesy, surveying and or cartographic organisations and they are often linked with the responsibility for measuring land, monitoring land and the production of products pertaining to land. National GPS grids and Transportation networks are often part of the mix, as well. There is a wide variation in what each agency does and it differs by country, although it is probably safe to say each measures and describes physical land features at least. In Europe, the Eurogeographics organisation (www.eurogeographics.org) represents a collection of 49 national mapping agencies. Several interesting examples of integrated projects between countries are described on their site.
Generally speaking, national mapping agencies are charged with the responsibility of creating and managing digital cadastre and land management products across the entire country. This means their work is oriented toward the creation of consistent and homogenous digital databases. This enables these agencies to provide similar information across entire countries, while also enabling governments, businesses and individuals, the ability to create policies, operations and expectations of a countrywide nature. This value cannot be under-estimated. It is the seed for developing land use developments, managerial strategies for environment, land use, population and other national policy initiatives. Without such data, a country is a collection of places with no real understanding, no basis for national decision making relative to land resources and has no consistent and useful means for protecting and understanding itself. How do you put a value on that?
In recent times national mapping agencies have come under debate. More often than not this has originated from those who would like all their data to be free. Not all of these agencies give their data away, some give parts of their data away, some give none and some give all of it away. Those who would wish for free data completely are misguided as to the value of the data, the costs of collecting it and the greater costs of maintaining it. Can you ride the bus or subway for free in your city? I doubt it. The funds are used to buy new buses and maintain them. But the argument does not stop there. Spatial information is not only collected once. It is continually collected and for national mapping agencies this is even more important.
These debates are interesting. In a sense, the greater the noise about these agencies, is a real example of their value and the publics expectation – people hunger for spatial information for a multitude of reasons today. From virtual worlds to consumer maps to high-end infrastructure design, digital spatial data is critically important and growing in need. The space between want and need for the information, and what is available, is where the debates lie.
From a cost – benefit perspective, the British Ordnance Survey, due to its high quality data, is probably the leader internationally when it comes to quality of data and being in a position to ‘lead’ in terms of what a national mapping agency can become to a country – and for being positioned to deliver on the points below.
I would venture that any country that wants to be on the leading edge of the future should be investing in its national mapping agency. Furthermore, any country that does not, will find itself relegated to a second or third tier economic force and vulnerable in the future. Why?
National mapping is a foundation for delivering e-government - properly
It provides the capability for establishing sustainability base-lining, monitoring and policy making
It is highly linked to the statistical organisation within a country, providing an understanding of people to place
It enables national infrastructure decision making for projects requiring consistent and homogenous data, enabling them to be planned, built and operated
National mapping agencies enable the building of infrastructure initiatives that mitigate and protect against terrorism and widespread biological vulnerability
It is important to understand that countries operate with a trans-boundary responsibility. Therefore, being able to participate in geographical matters across borders is a requirement.
||The role of a national mapping organization has certainly evolved significantly as we moved from paper to digital maps. Maps as abstractions of reality at a single scale is no longer acceptable, instead we expect geospatial data at great accuracy, increasing realism and current collection.
The currency of data are of increasing importance in our ever-changing world. A growing number of transactions are taking place based on spatial information, and nobody wants the pain of a bad decision because they’ve acted on bad data.
Maps and geospatial data at many scales includes the requirement for a high degree of positional accuracy, including vertical position. The need for a highly accurate land slope and boundary alignment provides a solid foundation for any mapping effort. It’s also a legal issue, as there are considerable responsibilities and risks for getting this information wrong.
Increasing realism now incorporates imagery, elevation models and 3D presentation. Imagery at high resolution and recent collection is the easiest means for quick data update. Imagery also provides a quick context check, as we can gather a great deal of intelligence at a glance. Putting this information into a 3D view further increases the rapid realization of place.
The demands of accuracy, currency and realism make a centralized mapping effort a very expensive and labor-intensive task. The national mapping organization as an arbiter of data quality at the scale and scope of North American countries is a huge undertaking that requires a great deal of political support, which simply doesn’t exist right now.
The advent of GIS, with map making tools for the masses, contributed significantly to the downfall of centralized map making. With the advent of GIS, federal agencies each undertook their own mapping initiatives that specifically met their individual objectives.
The competition among agencies is true in North America as well as many other countries around the world. The split is most significant among military and civilian mandates, with funding for “geospatial intelligence” far surpassing civilian map agencies.
A central government simply can’t make the investment needed to collect data to a high standard and consistency when there’s so much mapping activity taking place at other levels of government and in the private sector.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s topographic map series at 1:24,000 scale achieved consistent national coverage, but the average age of those maps is now more than 25 years old. The U.S. Geological Survey has undertaken a National Map scheme whereby they forge partnerships and act as a centralized repository and dissemination point for map data.
I like the spirit of collaboration in this approach, and the fact that it harnesses the geospatial enterprise architectures that exist in most GIS’s. This approach also specifically aligns itself to the mandates of federal initiatives while contributing expertise and funding for local projects.
At this stage of the game, where significant private investment in geospatial data creation will create geospatial base data of superior quality and accuracy, the game has changed completely. From the early days where open and free U.S. geospatial data fed the creation of a strong geospatial industry, it is now the geospatial industry data that should largely form the underpinnings as base data for government efforts.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just came to this realization when they licensed Microsoft’s Virtual Earth platform as a means to communicate their information to the public. The move makes a great deal of fiscal sense that gets the agency away from the business of creating their own base map layers and instead focused on creating data and tools aligned with their core mission.
As private sector platform creators continue to duke it out on data quality, currency and features–and pour much money into these efforts– it’s increasingly difficult to justify the role of a centralized map agency for data collection and creation. Instead, the effort should be placed on applications where a central agency can work to improve collaboration and build a better understanding of Earth systems for the benefit of all.