The Federal Geographic Data Committee: Historical Reflections – Future Directions

January 2004, an FGDC paper on the history of the FGDC and NSDI

Planting the Seeds

In July 1973 the Report of the Federal Mapping Task Force on Mapping, Charting, Geodesy, and Surveying was published, representing the analyses and recommendations of representatives from the Office of Management and Budget, the Forest Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Defense Mapping Agency, and the U.S. Geological Survey. They found that most of the major cartographic agencies were in the process of developing and implementing computer-assisted automated systems, although no complete system had been developed at that time. The Task Force recognized that there were fast-growing cartographic requirements to relate points and areas on the ground to the social, economic, and ecological framework of our society and to present these relationships in digital form. The advent of the digital computer was ushering in a new revolution in mapping.

From Digital Evolution to Revolution

Over the decade following the Task Force Report there was extensive research, development and application of computer-assisted cartography in government agencies. Fledgling digital mapping programs were initiated in the late 1970’s in many government agencies. Within the Department of the Interior, the Geological Survey started its “Digital Mapping Program,” the Bureau of Land Management initiated their “Automated Land and Mineral Record System.” Other (DOI) Bureaus, while not having major automated cartography programs, were using the technology for project specific purposes. Soon advances in the technology coupled with reduced computer costs fueled an explosion in digital cartographic programs government-wide.

To assess the magnitude and growth of digital cartographic activities in the Federal government the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) initiated two studies. The first study, conducted in 1980 by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, identified the scope of Federal digital cartographic activities and assessed the next course of action in this evolving field. Recommendations from this study focused on establishing a centralized data base and a schema for building this data base. The second study was conducted by the General Accounting Office (GAO) in 1982. Three major findings resulted from this study: 1) it showed that there was a substantial duplication of effort in the Federal community, which was expected to increase; 2) there was a lack of prescribed standards; and, 3) there was inadequate interagency coordination. It was following the completion of this study that OMB issued a memorandum in 1983 establishing a formal committee with the specific charge of coordinating digital cartographic activities among Federal agencies.

From Revolution to Coordination

This newly established committee was called the Federal Interagency Coordinating Committee on Digital Cartography (FICCDC). The DOI was identified as chair of this committee that included representatives from the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, State, Transportation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The FICCDC was specifically charged to “improve the use of digital cartographic base data within the Federal government and to provide a framework for its proper management.” Within this context the committee addressed the key issues of data base development, standards, and duplicative effort.

By the late 1980’s the distinction between the fields of automated cartography and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) was becoming blurred. The use of this automated technology was now omnipresent. New and growing administrative and regulatory responsibilities assigned to agencies were placing tremendous pressure on existing information delivery systems. Computerized spatial data handling technologies, such as GIS had emerged as cost-effective tools for solving complex geographical problems and assisting decision-makers in finding solutions to real-world management challenges. In recognition of these changes taking place, the OMB in 1989, renewed the charter of the FICCDC and tasked the committee to look at the future of spatial data coordination in the Federal Government. Specifically, 1) to prepare an analysis evaluating the FICCDC mission as it related to an expanded role in coordinating Federal use of digital spatial data, 2) to provide recommendations for appropriate FICCDC activities beyond its current charter, and 3) to conduct a review of and prepare recommendations for potential revisions to OMB Circular A-16, Coordination of Surveying and Mapping Activities, to incorporate Federal activities relating to digital spatial data. In December 1989, the FICCDC held a two-day “Forum on Spatial Data Coordination” bringing together representatives from 60 organizations/agencies to discuss, debate, and formulate recommendations to affect the future shape and character of coordination. Specific recommendations from this Forum were to 1) increase the breadth of coordination of Circular A-16 from 3 categories of spatial data to 10 categories, 2) change the committee name to reflect this broader coordination responsibility, and 3) the new committee and its expanded responsibilities should be incorporated within a revised OMB Circular A-16.


OMB issued a revised Circular A-16 on October 19, 1990 formally establishing the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), chaired by the Secretary of the Interior, to look at the broader national landscape (with involvement of Federal, State, and local governments, and the private sector) of spatial activities, and called for the “development of a national digital spatial information resource, linked by criteria and standards, that will enable sharing and efficient transfer of spatial data between producers and users.” This ‘resource’ has come to be known as the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The NSDI is viewed as a series of actions to bring about improved collection, sharing, and use of geographic information. It provides a base or structure of relationships among data producers and users, and a foundation for data applications, services, and products.

The FGDC has grown into a 19 member interagency committee composed of representatives from the Executive Office of the President, Cabinet-level and independent agencies. In addition, the Committee has involvement from 32 State Geographic Information Councils, and 9 non-Federal organizations representing broad sector interests. Since it’s inception the FGDC has worked to put in place the 6 basic building blocks or ‘common’ elements of the NSDI: Metadata, Clearinghouse, Standards, Framework, Geospatial data, and Partnerships. Each of the component parts are the keystones of establishing consistency and structure in documenting spatial data for everyday applications, and in building a distributed network of producers and users that facilitates the sharing of these data. While the NSDI serves as a the supporting infrastructure, it will be further developed and maintained as a growing resource by new users who will contribute their data for access and use by others.

In 1994, Presidential Executive Order 12906 specifically called for the establishment of the NSDI for the Nation and laid out specific actions to be achieved. Presidential attention to the NSDI served as a catalyst to galvanize the nation’s interest and served as a springboard to launch numerous committee initiatives to engage both Federal and non-federal organizations. One of the major initiatives was the establishment of the NSDI Cooperative Agreements Program. This merit-based funding assistance program provides seed money to encourage collaborative NSDI resource sharing projects between and among the public and private sector. Since it’s inception, this grant program has provided funding for over 200 projects involving more than 1000 organizations. Many of those organizations have institutionalized NDSI practices and have become anchor tenants on the NSDI, and thereby attracted others to use and become a part of the infrastructure.

Future Directions

Today, this Presidential Administration’s awareness and heightened interest in geography and geospatial data in the decision-making process has cast an intense spotlight on the FGDC and the NSDI, and has led the OMB to again revise, reissue (July 2001), and rename Circular A-16 “Coordination of Geographic Information and Related Spatial Data Activities,” 1) adding the OMB as co-chair of the FGDC, 2) increasing the breadth of coordination to 34 data categories, 3) more clearly articulating and strengthening Federal agency roles and responsibilities for the NSDI, and 4) stressing the importance and requirement of interagency/intersector collaboration.
In addition, Presidential E-Gov initiative “Geospatial One-Stop” was launched in 2003 to make it easier, faster, and cheaper for all national sectors to locate and access geospatial information . It is intended to build upon existing capabilities and ongoing agency programs to accelerate the implementation of the NSDI. Current and expected future national and international priorities such as security, environmental and economic issues make the basic tenets of the NSDI more relevant now than ever before. To reap the benefits of the vast data resources being generated today and expected in the future, it is important that agencies make the investment in and the commitment to those same basic tenets - common standards, data partnerships and accessible data. In its first decade, the FGDC had great success in introducing the concepts of data sharing, putting in place the building blocks to facilitate the sharing, and promoting the tenets of the NSDI. In fact, the basic tenets of the NSDI are embraced by many foreign countries as they develop their own spatial data infrastructures in the growing ‘global spatial data infrastructure.’ In the next decade the goal of the FGDC will be enabling widespread implementation through data sharing and data integration, to move us all closer to the kind of spatial data infrastructure that will truly enable reaching the vision of the NSDI : “Current and accurate geospatial data will be readily available to contribute locally, nationally, and globally to economic growth, environmental quality and stability, and social progress.”