Wisconsin Geospatial News

USGS mapping: institutional change begins

It is my hope that the recent appointment of Dick Vraga to be the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) Geography Discipline’s liaison to Wisconsin (see related article) becomes a milestone for federal agency mapping of the state. I hope that five, or possibly ten years from now, we can look back to recognize that 2003 was the year that USGS mapping activities changed dramatically for the state of Wisconsin.

I do not express this hope because I believe Dick to be the “messiah” of federal mapping in the state, although I do expect he will certainly do a very credible job in this new position. My hope is based on the fact that I see his appointment as a first wave of a new era for USGS mapping in the state, and more broadly a new era for USGS as a national mapping agency.

Times have changed
Since its beginning in 1879 the USGS has held a central role in mapping the nation. This role has been based primarily on the topographic map series — 55,000 sheets covering most of the nation — as a standardized product useful to the general public and professionals. This treasure trove of mapping is now, on average, 25 years old nationally, and even older across Wisconsin.

In the last 10 years, mapping needs have changed. Public agencies and private firms need paper maps less and less as they move into the digital realm. The “map” has become primarily a database, not a collection of paper or film with related information recorded on other registered pieces of film. And, equally important is the fact that a huge amount of the digital mapping is being built and maintained at the state and local government levels, and within the private sector. This is different than it was when formally published maps, such as the quad sheet, were produced by a large, centralized and remote agency such as the USGS.

The necessary adjustment
Responding to this rapidly changing mapping world has been difficult for the USGS, as it would be for any large organization. A few years ago its National Mapping Division was renamed the Geography Discipline (GD) in recognition that the future would be different. The GD has an workforce largely trained and experienced in technologies of past decades, reflective more of manual than digital skills, and focused on in-office technical tasks rather than reaching out to coordinate with other organizations that produce useful spatial data. In order to adapt to the changed environment, the GD has begun to redefine and restructure its workforce.

A third of the GD’s employees (those deemed to have job skills no longer relevant to today’s needs) have been offered an early buyout. Probably, only 10-15% of that third will opt to leave, but the point is the agency is recognizing that only major change will position the resources and skills to meet the new challenges.

A new sub-regional coordination focus
Which brings me back to the appointment of Dick Vraga. In making his appointment, the GD has also announced the creation of a “Mapping Partnership Office” in the state of Wisconsin. In and of itself, this is not a big deal since for years the GD has had a mapping liaison assigned to the state, usually someone from the regional office in Rolla, MO. However, Dick’s appointment is different: he lives within the state, and the Mapping Partnership Office (MPO) portends additional USGS employees being assigned within our borders. In fact, the Madison office is slated to be the headquarters for four other states in our upper mid-west sub-region (based on the current USGS five-year plan).

Time will tell
The MPO concept signals a new style of cooperation and involvement between USGS and the states — a serious attempt to leverage the wealth of digital spatial data being maintained by state and local governments, and to link that data into new products such as The National Map. We hope that this approach will also mean an influx of federal funds as cost-sharing for data development of various kinds, and no longer tied to the restrictive model of the printed quadrangle map sheet.

If USGS is able to execute its plans to transfer GD positions from its regional offices out to the states — a process they call “moving people out onto the landscape” — and to coordinate the efforts of this relocated staff through the MPOs, the result will be a radical transformation of its business model.

Of course, only time will tell how effective the MPO approach will be. I have hope that its creation will be a real watershed event in federal mapping activities within Wisconsin, and that we will look back to 2003 as the year it all began.