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Geospatial technology zeroes in on agencies' needs

Mar. 20, 2012 - 02:43PM   |  
Two members of the U.S. Army salute during a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery.
Two members of the U.S. Army salute during a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Arlington National Cemetery, where mismanagement and antiquated paper-based record-keeping led to the mislabeling of remains, plans to use an Army geospatial system to address its problems.

The technology will, for the first time, provide a single electronic map of the cemetery and allow employees to assign gravesites and synchronize data on burial operations, repairs and other work, Kathryn Condon, executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program, said at a House subcommittee hearing earlier this month.

And starting this summer, cemetery visitors will be able to locate gravesites using Web-based applications, smartphone apps and on-site kiosks, Condon said.

Like Arlington, many agencies are embracing geospatial technology for a wide range of reasons and purposes.

The Army uses it to familiarize troops with the battlefield before they deploy. The Army's data-collecting technology allows it to build three-dimensional models of any terrain showing the height of walls, where windows are located on buildings, road width dimensions and more.

"This capability didn't exist a decade ago," said Joseph Fontanella, director of the Army Geospatial Center in Alexandria, Va., and also the Army's geospatial information officer. The Office of Management and Budget in 2006 directed the Defense Department and more than two dozen other agencies to appoint GIOs to oversee geospatial information issues departmentwide.

The center run by Fontanella provides the Army and Defense Department with geospatial expertise, including system development, acquisition and geospatial technology integration.

Soldiers also have access to a software tool called the Army Geospatial Enterprise GeoGlobe, which shows geospatial imagery data and map views of the world.

"It's Google Earth on steroids," Fontanella said.

Soldiers, including those deployed in war zones, can update the GeoGlobe database to better reflect their surroundings, and those data are shared with other users to create an accurate common operating picture. The GeoGlobe can be accessed via the Internet or as a stand-alone system on a special laptop.

Fighting fraud

The Agriculture Department uses geospatial technology to ensure that only eligible populations are receiving nutrition support benefits such as food stamps and free or reduced-price school lunches and to ensure those benefits are being used properly, said Stephen Lowe, the department's GIO.

Employees map census data to show neighborhoods where residents may be eligible for benefits and whether they are receiving them. In addition to showing where beneficiaries live, the data show where benefits are spent and suggest whether any disparate locations are a possible indicator of fraud.

"We're accustomed to looking at data on a spreadsheet or slide," Lowe said. But geospatial technology "allows us to take multiple data sets and combine them, based on a location, to see what the relationships are between those data."

In examining the data, "we want to understand how people get access to those entitled benefits around food nutritional support," Lowe said. "We look at accessibility, equity to those benefits and fraud."

Geospatial technology is "not just about a dot on the map and transparency," said Christopher Thomas, director of government marketing at geospatial company Esri. It's about the "ability to present [the] why on the information and get feedback."

The company partnered with Amazon Web Services to launch the website, which allows citizens to track stimulus data at the national, state and local level. Esri's software combines data from agencies' weekly financial reports and reports submitted by recipients of stimulus funding and plots those data based on location. The combined data help investigators and the public pinpoint possible fraud.

Engaging the public

USDA also uses geospatial technology to better inform the public.

In late February, Agriculture launched an interactive map called "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass," which shows the public the location of farmers and businesses that receive USDA funding. Users can zoom in on locations and get details on award amounts, the purpose of projects and other data.

Agriculture also created a public Web map showing USDA efforts that provide assistance to renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. The map displays investment location, type of energy investment, amount of assistance provided and the administering USDA program. The data are also summarized by state, county and congressional districts.

The Interior Department is using the technology to develop an online river atlas as part of the president's America's Great Outdoors initiative to connect citizens with nature. The atlas will show users the nearest rivers, water conditions and where to buy or rent kayaking equipment.

More efficiency

At a conference last month, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes called geospatial technology the "most important new tool for decision-makers."

Interior is partnering with Esri and nonprofit organizations to create a landscape decision tool that will allow Interior employees to quickly share data with agency leaders, said Andrew Jackson, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services. For example, the tool could be used to show where wildfires are located, and how they have spread or been contained, Jackson said.

Esri's Thomas said federal agencies use the company's technology to manage building and lease inventories and improve allocation of federal funds and vaccines. Other projects Esri has underway help the public understand why governments spend money in particular areas.

Thomas said local, state and federal sales make up 60 percent of the company's overall revenue.

"What we're seeing is a trend across the federal government that recognizes there is a leadership responsibility that is necessary to allow standard and shareable geospatial information," said the Army's Fontanella.

One challenge is getting employees to consider creative ways to use the technology, Lowe said. He is working to change that by encouraging programs to include geospatial professionals in the decision-making process early on to tackle challenges.

To provide geospatial technology to more users at USDA, the department plans to make available this month a Geospatial Center of Excellence. Users will have access to a virtual library of data, map products and templates that can be created and shared in a cloud environment, Lowe said.

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