Proposal for a National Spatial Data Infrastructure Standards Project


November 1997


Governmental Unit Boundary Data Content Standard.


Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) Subcommittee on Cultural and Demographic Data (SCDD).


To provide consistency in the maintenance and interchange of governmental unit boundaries and facilitate the analysis of and comparison between the boundaries.


The Governmental Unit Boundary Data Content Standard (the Standard) will be an FGDC data content standard. The Standard will identify and provide semantic definitions and rules for utilizing components for describing governmental unit boundaries.

The applicability of the Standard; that is, the domain of entities the components shall be used to describe the boundaries of, is limited to governmental units although the Standard's principles may be extended to describe the boundaries of other geographic entities. The Standard adopts the U.S. Bureau of the Census description of a governmental unit as:

"A geographic entity established by legal action, and for the purpose of implementing administrative or governmental functions. Most governmental units have officially recognized boundaries. All area and population of the United States are part of one or more legal units."1 The Census Bureau recognizes six categories of governmental units: active governmental unit, administrative entity, functioning governmental unit, general purpose government, inactive governmental unit, legal entity, and nonfunctioning governmental unit2; the Standard shall be applicable to all. The Standard will include a listing of the domain of governmental units recognized by the Census Bureau. Examples are: the Nation, American Indian reservation, States and statistically equivalent areas, counties and statistically equivalent areas, functioning and legal minor civil divisions, and incorporated places.


Governmental unit boundaries are a key part of many datasets. Although a large number of agencies present data which is either directly or indirectly referenced to governmental units, a relative few number of agencies are responsible for the collection and maintenance of governmental unit boundaries. Governmental unit boundaries are held by maintenance agencies in a format designed for their internal use, making the interchange of governmental unit boundaries to all interested parties unduly complex (for example, the Bureau of the Census maintains its governmental unit boundaries in its TIGER(tm) database). There is a need for an FGDC governmental unit boundary data content standard to improve the sharing and interchange of governmental unit boundaries amongst federal, state and local governmental and other interested participants.

The Bureau of the Census conducts a Boundary and Annexation Survey (BAS) to determine the inventory of legally defined entities and the correct names, political descriptions, and legal boundaries of counties, MCDs, and incorporated places as of January 1 of the year of the survey. The Standard will assist in the collection of this information.

The Standard meets the responsibilities stated in OMB Circular No. A-16 to develop standards through the FGDC to ensure that the spatial data produced by all Federal agencies is compatible.

The Development of a National Digital Geospatial Data Framework (Federal Geographic Data Committee publication, April, 1995) identified governmental units as one "layer" of the information content of framework. The Standard will assist in developing this aspect of framework. The development of the Standard is particularly timely in that Executive Order 12906 states the initial transportation, hydrology, and boundary elements of framework should be completed by January 1998 in order to support the decennial census of 2000. As Chair of the SCDD, the Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, has identified the development of the Standard as a means of furthering this goal.


The Standard will benefit Federal, state and local governments and other participants interested in sharing and interchanging boundary data. Potential contributors to and users of framework data will also benefit.


All members of the SCDD participate in developing the Standard. The Bureau of the Census will provide staff to lead the effort.

The SCDD plans to draw from existing standards, which include the Spatial Data Transfer Standard. The SCDD will coordinate with those interested in framework through the FGDC Framework Working Group.


The following standards have been identified to date:

  • Address Content Standard (draft) - SCDD
  • Cadastral Data Content Standard for the National Spatial Data Infrastructure - FGDC Cadastral Subcommittee, December 1996
  • FIPS 5-2: Codes for the Identification of the States, the District of Columbia and the Outlying Areas of the United States, and Associated Areas -- National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
  • FIPS 6-4: Counties and Equivalent Entities of the United States, Its Possessions, and Associated Areas - NIST
  • FIPS 55: Codes for Named Populated Places Primary County Divisions and Other Locational Entities -- NIST
  • FIPS 173: Spatial Data Transfer Standard (SDTS) -- NIST
  • Geographic Data File (GDF), version 3 -- GDF was recently issued to the Central European Nomalisation (CEN) for voting procedure and has been proposed to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Technical Committee (TC) 204
  • ISO 15046-7, Geographic Information - Part 7: Spatial Subschema (draft), ISO/TC 211
  • Geographic Area Reference Manual -- U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, November 1994


Work will begin on the Standard as soon as the proposal is approved by the FGDC's Standards Working Group (SWG). A working draft will be completed within nine months of the start date. The working draft will be forwarded to the SWG for consideration for public review.


The SCDD has adequate resources to accomplish most of the development and initial review processing of the Standard. However, additional resources will be needed to handle the full review and comment activity during non-Federal sector public review.


Primary participants will be members of the SCDD:

Department of Agriculture, National Resources Conservation Service
Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service
Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census
Department of Commerce, Office of Ocean Resources, Conservation, and Assessment
Department of Defense, Tri-Service CADD/GIS Technology Center
Department of Defense, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers
Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics
Department of Housing and Urban Development
Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs
Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management
Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Services
Department of the Interior, National Park Service
Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics
Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division
Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics
Department of State
Environmental Protection Agency
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Library of Congress
National Archives and Records Administration
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
National Capital Planning Commission
Social Security Administration
Tennessee Valley Authority.

Input will be solicited from participants in the FGDC's Cadastral Subcommittee, Framework Working Group, and International Boundaries Subcommittee.

SCDD's open membership policy allows for and encourages participation by non-federal individuals and organizations.


The SCDD is developing an FGDC data content standard; the FGDC is the target authorization body.


Ms. Leslie Godwin, Vice Chairperson, SCDD
Bureau of the Census
Geography Division, Geospatial Research and Standards Staff
Washington, DC 20233-7400

Phone: (301) 457-1056
FAX: (301) 457-4710

1 U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the Census, "Geographic Areas Reference Manual", issued November, 1994.

2 An active governmental unit is a governmental unit that has elected or appointed officials, raises revenues, and performs governmental activities (such as enactment of laws, provision of services, and entering into contracts.) An administrative entity is a geographic entity established by the Census Bureau for 1990 census data collection purposes. It usually consists of a census tract or block group. A functioning governmental unit is a general-purpose government that has the legal capacity to elect or appoint officials, raise revenues, provide services, and enter into contracts. A general purpose government is a functioning governmental unit that, through appointed or elected officials, performs many tasks and provides a wide range of services. An inactive governmental unit is a governmental unit that is not exercising its legal capacity to have elected or appointed officials; thus, it neither raises revenue or provides services. A legal entity is a geographic entity whose boundaries, name, origin, and political/statistical area description result from charters, laws, treaties, or other administrative or governmental action. A nonfunctioning governmental unit is a legally defined governmental unit that does not have appointed or elected officials, raise revenues, or perform general purpose governmental activities such as enacting laws, entering into contracts, or providing services. The term refers to an entity established to administer a task assigned to another governmental unit. A nonfunctioning governmental unit is not classified as a government by the Census Bureau.