By Karen Rogers / February 13, 2020

“Sometimes life drops lessons in your lap without your lifting a finger. Serendipity, they call it.”
~ Charlton Heston

A phrase I hear frequently is, “All things happen for a reason”. If you’re like me, half the time you hear that you want to throat punch the person who said it to you. A quarter of the time, you couldn’t agree more and knew it would work out that way, and another quarter of the time you probably wonder one way or the other. Regardless, at some point we are all struck with the idea of crazy coincidence and fortunate circumstance; on the other side of the coin we’re dealt with raw deals that make us scratch our heads and wonder, with a lesson learned months (or years) down the road.

In my early days when I was a green newbie with the BLM, an old-timer told me that the federal planning process is circular; she meant that good, productive ideas had their time, fell out of fashion, and then came back in a few years as the latest and greatest idea. Meanwhile, the idea never really made it that far or became ubiquitous or successful. Over the years, I have observed this to be true both in federal and state government. Holding on to this paradigm, we never get anywhere as it’s one step forward, two steps back. Unless we study and consult history, we are bound to repeat mistakes of the past.

All this said, events, conversations and opportunities of late give me pause to think about these two ideas in the context of where we are with state GIS coordination. I have been in contact with two people whose GIS careers in Wyoming have proven to be pivotal, if not overlooked, in the history of national GIS coordination. It’s been a little cosmic over the last few months to be in contact with these people and have the discussions we have given the current context of GIS coordination not only in Wyoming, but also at a national scale. And sadly, it’s been a reminder as to how these efforts have been circular; we’ve been here before with sound ideas and leadership. Will this time be different?

Nancy McCann worked for Governor Jim Geringer out of our State Engineer's Office. From the days I was the state GIS coordinator, I have consulted her for advice and input, not recognizing the extent of the resource I was tapping into. A few months ago she shared with me more of her story, and pieces of the puzzle fell together. She is an incredible resource who has been there and done that, proving herself to be a reference to learn from.

Separately I was put in touch with Lisa Warnecke, the reported “Mother of NSGIC”. Little known fact, in her early days (1984-85) she was a budget analyst for the State of Wyoming. She was able to get her job done in a matter of hours each week, leaving her plenty of time to gather information documenting state GIS coordination. She produced several volumes documenting the national status of GIS coordination for both strictly GIS efforts and also state efforts for remote sensing using satellite imagery. She was also responsible for rescuing the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database from inadvertent disposal by rescuing our paper copy from a trash can in the 80’s. All this while working in Cheyenne. She went on to much bigger things, but her roots to Wyoming data remained strong.

Between Nancy and Lisa, I have been provided with well documented and researched materials from the 80’s and 90’s that paint a picture of nascent national GIS coordination, young in its development but promising with its potential. Is it a strange twist of fate that has put me here at this time to know these women? I can’t say, but I’m thankful I’m here now to know them and because of that get access to their knowledge and resources.

Here we are 25 years later. I’m so disappointed to tell you that we have not moved the needle one bit since then. From the latest Geospatial Maturity Assessment, of the 41 states who responded to the survey, only 36 have state coordinators, and only 33 of them are authorized through legislative or executive action. That is actually a downslide from the mid-nineties when these reports were released.

In my conversations with these ladies, several common themes are repeated. One is the need for authoritative positions. Back in their day, because of the legitimacy of state Geographic Information Officer (GIO) positions, they were able to get higher responses to state surveys (all 50 states) and command higher audiences (including the Secretary of the Interior and Director of NASA ). Unless state coordinator positions have legislative and executive support, they will not persist or be taken seriously.

Another common theme is the circular nature of identifying needs and providing resources to meet those needs. A state GIO position was first recommended in the early 90’s. Within states, this position has been subject to the ebbs and flows of executive support, to the degree of understanding of the technology and its interdependence with so many branches of the public and private sector. The current status we see now translates to the ineffectiveness of a stop-and start-nature, of inconsistent knowledge and support of GIS.

Thanks to knowing these ladies, I have gotten access to a library of resources they produced in their day, one of which NSGIC is working to make available to the public (the State Geographic Information Activities Compendium published by the Council of State Government in 1992). That and other resources document the degree and details of GIS coordination in states in the early to mid-90’s. They are absolute gems when it comes to the foundation of state GIS coordination. I am reminded that these documents were produced 25 years ago...reading through them, it’s a bit demoralizing to recognize that not much has changed for us in those 25 years. I cannot ignore how we had this stuff figured out 25 years ago; we explained and documented a lot of details regarding coordination between federal, state and local governments.

And yet some days, you would never know these activities had ever occurred. When it comes to datasets such as geodetic control or hydrography, the level of coordination between the private sector and the federal government is not universal. We had so much of this figured out, and yet we have back-slid to where many state programs are ineffective and forgotten. This benefits no one. We must learn from our history.

The first thing we must do is capture these resources and make them available electronically so that more people can digest and learn from them. NSGIC will continue to make more resources available to our members and build a searchable, user-friendly library to answer common questions. While some states learned from these efforts earlier, it is now up to us to communicate and share these lessons to prevent further backsliding for those slower to catch on.

I can’t answer the question if this is all meant to be, but what I can tell you is that it has inspired me to try to light a fire. We need to learn from the past and not repeat mistakes to truly advance our national spatial data infrastructure through coordinated GIS state efforts. At this stage in the game, we truly cannot afford to ignore advice documented from the past to help shape our current efforts to build a better tomorrow.