Mapping the Way to a National Enterprise GIS

Written by Dr. Qassim Abdullah, Chief Scientist, Woolpert Geospatial Services

Like so many in the geospatial industry, I believe that the present time and environment are perfect for thinking outside the box about GIS and geospatial databases.

With the advancement, affordability and accessibility of cloud data hosting, the possibility of creating a national GIS database is closer than ever before. This GIS database, which I refer to as the “national enterprise GIS,” will efficiently manage all public and private maps, geospatial data and records that exist today in different data silos across varied government agencies.

The development of a national enterprise GIS has the potential to provide the following remarkable benefits to our government and citizens:

  • It eases access to geospatial data for policy makers and planners.
  • It provides an efficient environment for activities like emergency response, natural resource management, urban planning, energy management, and transportation planning and management.
  • It creates data-driven pictures for public administrators, politicians, industry partners and citizens alike, that explain national challenges with relevant geographic details.

We are living in a time of technology advancement that is fully capable of supporting such a concept. Cloud-based data hosting and processing are picking up steam, as is user acceptance of these practices. Software companies have advocated enterprise GIS implementations for several years, and we have witnessed limited-size (state or county) implementation projects. However, we have yet to see an implementation occur at a national level.

Most recently, there was a serious call for the development of the national infrastructure map. On May 1, 2018, Arizona State University hosted the National Academy of Public Administration, National Academy of Construction, American Geographical Society and other leaders from across the country for a one-day summit. The meeting explored the potential for GIS technology to support the development of a national infrastructure map that could help prioritize and motivate infrastructure investment.

The national infrastructure map, if developed, will comprise one of the multiple layers forming the proposed national enterprise GIS. Examples of other potential data layers include the 3D Elevation Program (managed by the United States Geological Survey) and the National Agriculture Imagery Program (managed by the United States Department of Agriculture).

Another important potential layer is a national transportation map, which is fundamental for the nation’s economy and the future of autonomous driving. The timing for this national effort could not be any better, as connected and autonomous vehicles are being introduced to our streets. To operate safely and effectively, these vehicles will need a seamless national transportation map unobstructed by state boundaries or localized regulations. Developing and adding such a map to the national enterprise GIS demonstrates intentional forward thinking on the part of the United States.

On a broader level, my call for the national enterprise GIS goes hand-in-hand with the vision and goals set forth by the nation’s leaders, as represented in Executive Order 12906: COORDINATING GEOGRAPHIC DATA ACQUISITION AND ACCESS: THE NATIONAL SPATIAL DATA INFRASTRUCTURE.

Signed by President Bill Clinton on April 11, 1994, Executive Order 12906 established executive branch leadership for the development of a coordinated national spatial data infrastructure. It also called for the development of a national geospatial data clearinghouse, spatial data standards, national digital geospatial data framework and data acquisition partnerships.

The executive order was amended in 2003 in connection with the transfer of certain functions to the Secretary of Homeland Security. Although it did not call specifically for a national enterprise GIS, it did pave the way for progress on data organization, exchange and sharing.

Let us celebrate our successes and technological advancements by building a national enterprise GIS. I believe it demonstrates a responsible choice for our citizens, a progressive action by our government and the leadership qualities of the United States of America.


Qassim A. Abdullah, Ph.D., PLS, CP

As Woolpert’s Chief Scientist, Qassim has more than 40 years of combined industrial, R&D and academic experience in analytical photogrammetry, digital remote sensing, and civil and surveying engineering. When he’s not presenting at geospatial conferences around the world, Qassim teaches photogrammetry and remote sensing courses at the University of Maryland and Penn State, authors a monthly column for the ASPRS journal PE&RS, and mentors R&D activities within woolpert_labs.

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