Wisconsin Geospatial News

Dittmar discusses beginnings of national committee

Don Dittmar, Land Information
Manager for Waukesha County.

Late last January, U.S. Dept. of the Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne announced the selection of 28 individuals to serve on the newly-created National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC). Much to the delight of those of us in Wisconsin, Don Dittmar, Land Information Manager for Waukesha County was included as one of the appointments. The purpose of the committee is to provide advice and recommendations on federal geospatial policy and management issues, and to provide a forum to convey views representative of partners in the geospatial community. Included in the 28 appointments are some well-known and respected individuals from the mapping and GIS communities, including Jack Dangermond, Environmental Systems Research Institute; David Schell, Open Geospatial Consortium; Allen Carroll, National Geographic Society; Randall Johnson, Metropolitan (Twin Cities) Council; and David Cowen, University of South Carolina. Since the January announcement, the NGAC has held two in-person meetings in Washington D.C. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Don to discuss his impressions on the beginnings of the NGAC.

Don, first, I want to offer congratulations to you on your appointment to the NGAC.This committee is a big deal, with some of the nation’s most prominent geospatial leaders as members. All of us in Wisconsin are extremely pleased about your appointment, something for which you can be very proud.

Thank you Ted, I am very proud, and at the same time truly humbled with my selection, and, as you well know, I don’t do “humble” very well. However, I do want to take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation to the Wisconsin Land Information Association that encouraged and supported my nomination, and to all the other individuals who wrote letters of support on my behalf. We have only begun, and already I can say that serving on this committee has been an incredible experience.

The NGAC adopted a charter, mission statement, and transition plan as a guide for the next administration. However, from your perspective, what do you see as the primary mission and goals for this committee?

At the beginning of this decade, the Office of Management and Budget issued a revised Circular A-16 addressing the need for coordination of surveying, mapping and related activities. The circular said that the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) was charged with the responsibility to “coordinate and work in partnership with federal, state, tribal and local government agencies, academia and the private sector to efficiently and cost-effectively collect, integrate, maintain, disseminate, and preserve spatial data, building upon local data wherever possible.” This circular is talking about building the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). I think now our most important mission is to refocus the FGDC on building the NSDI with particular attention paid to building on local data, the data that is, for the most part, created at the source.

The NGAC held two face-to-face meeting so far, the first in mid-April, and the most recent in early June. Can you give us your impression of these meeting? Were they well-organized, successful gatherings? What was accomplished in your view?

The meetings have been extremely well organized. We are an official FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act) committee that prescribes practices and openness in the process of getting non-governmental input. At only two meetings it is hard to say we have accomplished much substantive, but we have established committees and working relationships that will carry us well into our process. At this point the FGDC is out in front of the committee on issues. To an extent we are in catch-up mode, but within the next year we should be able to get out front of the FGDC on priorities and recommendations.

Do you as one of five representatives from local government have any feeling thus far for how receptive the committee will be to addressing issues important to local government?

Very well received! One of the committee members offered the opinion that the reason this committee may succeed when others in the past of a similar purpose have not is the presence of local and tribal representatives. Committee member Bull Bennett, Science Coordinator for the North Dakota Association of Tribal Colleges, and Executive Director of Nativeview, Inc., remarked that with the presence of tribal and local officials, “the room is fuller now.”

The committee and especially the federal representatives don’t yet know how to handle us. There was one point when they were discussing building a single, massive database of parcel and address data. After some discussion, I stated that since we had convened that morning, my county had added 6 tax parcels, deleted 2 parcels, and assigned 10 new addresses. I stated that until they figured how to accommodate updates, our discussions were nothing. At that point, the discussion took on a more map service/interactive tone.

What have you seen regarding committee dynamics? The committee is split just about 50-50 between public sector and private sector members with some well-known names from the geospatial community. Do you think this is good balance? Do you think this composition will provide good decisions and sound guidance?

I sense a passion for GIS that is not present in any other group I have ever been in. The committee is made up of the real national leaders and pioneers of our industry. Everyone in the room understands our purpose. There is no need for education on the issues. In that, I find the committee very focused on making the industry better. The only split I have sensed so far is between those representatives from companies who primary business is imagery, and all of the others.

What are the big issues that NGAC will address? Which ones do you feel will receive the most attention? Are there any controversial issues or points of disagreement?

Well overall, as I stated earlier, looking at the NSDI and assessing if it is still a valid concept, or need redefinition and implementation will be a huge issue.

Regarding controversy, what I perceive in the make up and bias of the Committee showed in our second meeting. We reviewed the Imagery for the Nation proposal, passing a resolution of support, but with some added conditions that really made it (in my mind) a weak support. The conditional issues that were inserted into the document following the resolution statement have been covered by other associations and got carried to our work. I am not sure whose interests were foremost in the recommendations that came out of our committee.

Can you give us a prediction on how successful you believe this committee will be? In what areas do you believe it will have an impact?

The overriding stated goal is to make suggestions regarding the NSDI so it can actually work. That sounds like a huge task and it is. But as Jack Dangermond said, “If this group does not try, no one else will.” My feeling is that we can certainly make a difference and move it (the NSDI) in a more positive direction.

How will the committee accomplish its goals?, i.e., what work is taking place outside the meetings?

We created subcommittees to work on mission and vision statements, a transition paper, and work on what has changed and is changing since the original issuance of the A-16 document. These subcommittees are quite active, providing draft materials to committee members for feedback between meetings so there is something for the committee to act on when we meet.

Who is charged with carrying out the recommendations of the committee?

NGAC is clearly advisory to the FGDC. However, Jim Cason, U.S. Department of Interior Assistant Secretary and Chair of the FGDC, has attend our meetings and had direct discussions with us about our opinions and recommendations. He has taken a very personal interest in the creation and work of the committee. He truly believes that the work of this committee is bigger than a political party or a single person. One of our first activities was to have a subcommittee prepare a transition recommendation for the new administration that will take over leadership in 2009.