Search Penny Hill Press

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Geospatial Information and Geographic Information Systems (GIS): An Overview for Congress

Peter Folger
Specialist in Energy and Natural Resources Policy

Geospatial information is data referenced to a place—a set of geographic coordinates—which can often be gathered, manipulated, and displayed in real time. A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer data system capable of capturing, storing, analyzing, and displaying geographically referenced information. The federal government and policy makers increasingly use geospatial information and tools like GIS for producing floodplain maps, conducting the census, mapping foreclosures, congressional redistricting, and responding to natural hazards such as wildfires, earthquakes, and tsunamis. For policy makers, this type of analysis can greatly assist in clarifying complex problems that may involve local, state, and federal government, and affect businesses, residential areas, and federal installations.

Examples of how GIS and geospatial data are used within and outside the federal government are growing rapidly. In this report, a few examples are provided that describe the real-time or near real-time data analysis in the case of a California wildfire; policy analysis in support of a Base Realignment and Closure decision in Virginia Beach; and analysis of foreclosure patterns using census and other data for the New York City area. An additional example is provided demonstrating the burgeoning interaction of GIS and social media. In this case, Japanese citizens collected and provided census records, maps, and other information—a variant of “crowdsourcing”— to a GIS team. The team assembled the information into data layers supporting an interactive map to assist humanitarian organizations working in areas of Japan damaged by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-16, first issued in 1953, gives direction for federal agencies that produce, maintain, or use geospatial data. OMB Circular A-16 has been revised and updated in 1967, 1990, and 2002. Most recently, the Obama Administration issued supplemental guidance to Circular A-16 that labeled federal geospatial data a capital asset and referred to its acquisition and management in terms analogous to financial assets. How well these “assets” are managed depends, in part, on how the federal government is structured to organize and coordinate its geospatial enterprise. That structure is embodied in the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), comprising 10 cabinet-level departments and 9 independent agencies. OMB Circular A-16, via its revisions and supplemental guidance, as well as Executive Order 12906, issued in 2004, gives the FGDC primary responsibility for developing the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The NSDI can be thought of as the infrastructure for federal geospatial “assets,” or the means by which federal geospatial data are acquired, processed, distributed, used, maintained, and preserved.

The 112
th Congress in its oversight role may have an interest in the programs and geospatial assets belonging to most federal departments and agencies within the framework of the NSDI. This report describes some of these programs to give a sense of the breadth and complexity of the federal geospatial enterprise.

Date of Report: May 18, 2011
Number of Pages: 23
Order Number: R41825
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail Penny Hill Press or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.