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GIS and Emerging Jeffersonian Technologies

By Mark Schaefer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, United States Department of the Interior

Mark Schaefer In the new millennium I believe geographic information systems will enable a new way of thinking about the world around us. This powerful tool will support decision making on a broad range of public policy issues from transportation, housing, and law enforcement to natural resource use and environmental protection. It will also allow us to integrate information and visualize how our actions are changing the landscape globally, nationally, and locally. In the years ahead, I believe GIS will evolve into the core of decision support systems (DSSs) and transform the way public policy decisions are made by allowing citizens to participate more directly and actively in government.

Thomas Jefferson believed citizens should be empowered to participate in their democracy through access to information. Yet in today's highly complex world much decision making falls into the hands of the expert or interest groups who not only have access to a wealth of information, but have the capacity to organize, evaluate, and make use of it. Decisions often move into the realm of the specialist and away from the citizen, a process that runs counter to pluralistic democratic processes. GISs and DSSs can be thought of as "Jeffersonian technologies" because they counter this trend and allow opportunities for active participation in the policy making process.

How will GIS and DSS enable Jefferson's vision of democracy? I believe by allowing information to be readily transferred, organized, evaluated, and visualized. Today GIS and the Internet allow data layers to be generated and transferred instantly around the globe. Remote sensing systems provide a wealth of data on the condition of the earth and how it is changing over time. Global positioning systems provide a means to rapidly pinpoint locations and link data precisely with a place. Portable laptop computers allow one to input and receive information virtually anywhere, and personal computers bring a wealth of data into people's homes and workplaces worldwide. Perhaps most exciting of all, advances in software allow this wealth of data from different sources to be integrated, synthesized, and put into a context that people can understand and use. In the next millennium the telecommunications, computational, global positioning, and environmental monitoring tools of today will give way to even more powerful capabilities to understand the world and how it is changing.

GIS links data with a place, and so it is a very powerful tool for synthesizing and organizing information in a way that is consistent with the way we naturally think of the world around us. Where am I going and how do I get there? How is my community changing? Where can I buy or sell a product or service? How is the environment in the community, watershed, and ecosystem I live in changing? The decision support systems of the future will build upon GISs and couple them to a wide range of analytical and visualization tools. DSSs will increasingly be used to integrate and evaluate physical, biological, social, and economic information.

Imagine a community in the year 2010 that is making decisions about growth and ways to avoid urban sprawl. Citizens and government officials gathered in the town hall are identifying ways to grow while improving their quality of life and protecting the environment. They want an effective transportation system, affordable housing, and easy access to a wide range of services. They want to conserve open space, expand urban parks, and use resources in a sustainable fashion. Public officials are helping their community develop and visualize alternative futures of their community. A GIS is being used to organize and provide ready access to hundreds of data layers that describe the state of the community. Sophisticated models are being used to project future patterns based on past experience and citizen preferences. Analytical packages are allowing people to ask a series of "what if" questions about their community and to translate those questions into changes in the built and natural environment.

In real time an image of the landscape and the built environment displayed on a large flatbed screen at the front of the room is changing as citizens discuss development, open space, transportation, water supply, and utility infrastructure. Alternative scenarios are projected, discussed, modified, and voted on. This is true, informed, citizen-based decision making. In this case, technology, which is often accused of insulating people from the real world, is bringing citizens closer to it and empowering them to define a future that reflects their hopes, values, and goals.

GIS and DSS will undoubtedly be powerful tools for public policy decision making in the next millennium. The question society faces now is how many and how soon communities will be able to take advantage of these tools. Making progress nationally will mean avoiding the digital divide and narrowing the gap between the technological have's and have not's that allows some communities to take advantage of these powerful new tools while others watch on the sidelines. The Federal Geographic Data Committee, working with local and state partners, has proposed a Community/Federal Information Partnership (C/FIP) to allow communities, counties, cities, watershed councils, and others to compete for grants and gain access to hardware, software, and information that will help them build their capacity to develop and make use of geographic information and decision support systems. The Administration is seeking funding from Congress to support this program.

The new millennium offers a tremendous opportunity to advance the tools that will enable us to develop forward-looking public policies through inclusive, participatory processes. "Jeffersonian technologies" will open the door to new ways of thinking about our communities, quality of life, and the world we will pass on to future generations.

Mark Schaefer is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the U.S. Department of the Interior. He oversees the Federal Geographic Data Committee on behalf of Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.

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