Wisconsin Geospatial News

Amidst progress, some problems persist

David Moyer

D. David Moyer by one of his many desks, this one at the Wis. Dept. of Transportation (photo by Kim Schauder)

You have been involved in studying and implementing modernized land information systems for longer than most people realize. How did it all begin?

I worked for a short time for the Census Bureau after receiving my master’s degree from Ohio State, then in 1967 moved over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economics Research Service (ERS) in Washington, D.C. My first task was to arrange the completion of a project done by the University of Cincinnati Law School which included the proceedings of a conference where various agencies outlined their vision of how they could use something that was dubbed a Comprehensive Unified Land Data System. Next I was assigned to write a publication on the development and status of land tenure in the U.S. For this I analyzed data from the Census of Agriculture which began in 1790, tracking farm land ownership and farm operator tenure. From these experiences it became clear that to best analyze and understand issues related to land ownership we needed to improve the systems for managing the underlying data. I gave my first paper on this new topic of land information systems in 1968.

How did you end up in Wisconsin?

The ERS sent me to Madison to work on a PhD. That choice was due to strong economics departments and the law school. Faculty on my advisory committee represented four different campus units. My dissertation was an analysis of different methods for numbering land parcels. After receiving my degree I stayed on in Madison with the ERS as adjunct faculty in the university’s Agricultural Economics Department. About that time I started working with Professor Ben Niemann on studies relating to costs and benefits of land records and their modernization.

You recently retired from a position with the National Geodetic Survey (NGS). How did you end up working with them, especially as an economist?

By 1985 the ERS was cutting back, and the NGS director at the time, John Bossler, wanted his agency to be promoting the economic benefits of improvements to the nation’s geodetic control system. So, I was able to stay in Madison by shifting focus to geodetic control. I am the only person to have been a state geodetic advisor without formal training in geodesy. My first assignment was to serve as one of three staff to the Wisconsin Land Records Committee (1985-1987). Over the years, NGS sent me to at least eight foreign countries to analyze and advise on their land information systems.

You have been very active in a number of professional associations. How important is this kind of service?

These groups are critical to much of the progress that is made. It is mainly through these kinds of groups that we meet new people and exchange ideas, and by serving you get to work closely with the people who shaping the future of our profession. Supporting professional associations is a labor of love for some of us. I was privileged to serve as president of URISA as well as the WLIA. For URISA I managed the printing and distribution of their publications out of a rented warehouse locker for 20 years. I also organized a number of annual conferences dealing with GIS in Transportation and served on the board of director for the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis for five years.

How important was your experience as an elected official in shaping your views of how land information systems might best be modernized?

I served on the Dane County Board of Supervisors for fourteen years beginning in 1974. Over that time I was on various committees including Finance. Seeing how things worked in general, and having a major role in the county budget were especially helpful. I have always believed that public investment leading to long-term benefits for both public and private institutions as well as individual citizens was a sound strategy. So, whether we’re talking about densifying geodetic control, digitizing analog parcel maps, or developing digital orthophotos as a GIS base layer, the costs are significant up front, but the pay-offs are even larger although they accrue over the long term.

While technologies like computing and GPS are today delivering capabilities almost unthinkable when you started your career, what issues are as relevant and problematic today as ever?

There continues to be an argument over free access to data vs. user fees. I firmly believe that the benefits of our investments in modernization of land information are being held back by restrictions on access. What modest fees government collects for licensing data or web access is less than the additional benefits that would accrue under a “free access” environment. Here I’m talking about the totality of benefits, not those specific to any one agency or level of government, or even the business community or citizens in general. Take a county-wide orthophoto project, for instance, even one that includes higher-resolution imagery over municipalities. Some counties that have undertaken such projects have collected more than enough land records filing fees to fund the entire project and then give away the products to anyone who wants them. It’s the total amount of end use that justifies the expense, so the more end use the better. Yet in some cases we have seen the funds used instead to pay staff who spend hundreds of hours convincing municipalities to pay extra as a share of the project. (Ironically, the bulk of land records filings come from residents of those very municipalities). Then, when the product is delivered, its use by any person or organization that didn’t make direct payments up front is limited by steep user fees. Some people are having to pay twice, and the widest use isn’t happening. This seems a backward approach to public investment: penny-wise but pound-foolish.

I appreciate that it is hard for institutions to bridge the gap created by one organization raising and spending the money and others taking advantage of that investment. However, it’s really the same people paying the bills no matter: the average citizen who pays property taxes, utility fees, and the occasional land records filing fee. Since we are paying, don’t the various governments and other organizations collectively owe us the most efficient system of modernizing land information, and then the most wide-open distribution of that information? Because these organizations can’t seem to cooperate for the common good, though, it costs us more and we benefit less.

Your concerns beg the question of how much the people ultimately paying the bills know about how the money is being allocated. Aren’t there some leverage points?

I believe that we are long overdue for some audits of how land records modernization funds are spent. Audits are a normal part of the process of running any organization. The Department of Administration, in its fiduciary role as manager of day-to-day operations of our state’s land information program, should have been conducting spot audits all along. My experience as a county board member and my training as an economist tells me that programs are improved through audits.

Do you have some more general observations about the difficulties that institutions face in trying to effectively modernize their land information?

In the wider field of mapping and surveying, we have gone through a huge transformation from the days when the federal government was a major player, especially in geodetic networks and base mapping. Federal programs were cut back faster than state and local governments could respond. Now, when cooperation at both the state and local levels (and between the two) is so crucial, there isn’t enough federal contribution to help guide it toward happening in a coordinated way. At the same time, I have seen just how detrimental turf battles at the federal level can be. An overarching trend that is very troubling to me something I call “reflecting favorably upward.” We work in a technical field, and administrators several levels above (where budgets are assembled) can’t grasp the rationale for all the initiatives that we recommend. Today some lower-level managers avoid making bold new proposals that they know make the most sense, simply because these proposals don’t fit into the upper-level management’s outline. As professionals we should not step back from advocating what we know is right when we believe that management wants to hear something different. This practice helps create budgets and programs we don’t fully believe in, and ultimately it establishes an institutional culture where good ideas are so suppressed that they don’t see the light of day. If we don’t buck this trend, we will in fact get what we know is substandard in our programs. It’s our professional responsibility to be positive advocates.