ArcNews Online

Summer 2007
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GIS Helps National Mapping Agencies Evolve Missions, Operations, and Service Delivery

Modernizing National Mapping Workflow


  • Agencies are broadening their missions while improving efficiency.
  • Map and chart production timelines are significantly reduced.
  • Geographic data is more readily exposed and shared with customers.
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Enterprise GIS-based workflows help national mapping agencies meet growing customer demand for more sophisticated products and greater access to data.

National mapping agency: The name conjures images of legions of cartographers laboring away at familiar maps of their respective countries—political, transportation, geologic, vegetation, and topographic. In truth, national mapping agencies (NMAs) have a vital and often underappreciated role in national government. They provide timely, relevant, and accurate geospatial intelligence in support of economic development, scientific research, natural resource management, navigation, safety, and national security. They are the leaders in collecting, managing, combining, and promoting the use of accurate and up-to-date geospatial data for use by government, business, and the public. Often, they are the only entity providing these services.

Evolving Missions and Business Models

In many countries, there is more than one NMA, with different agencies dedicated to aeronautical, nautical, or topographic mapping. Most have focused on producing a limited number of standard products or series delivered either as hard-copy maps or digital files. Data was centered on the product sets and stored in a variety of databases and libraries while being processed by a disparate set of systems and tools. The specifications for these products were fixed, with production requirements established months or years in advance. The acquisition of source material followed similar timelines, and production processes depended heavily on manual operations. Customers ordered from an inventory of products and adapted them to their uses.

This business model is changing as the value of geospatial information becomes more widely recognized and customers demand more sophisticated products and greater access to the data. There is growing recognition that the product-centric system no longer meets customers' evolving demands nor is it efficient for the agencies. As geospatial information moves from the realm of map publishing and special projects to supporting mission-critical business functions, customers require more content and currency, on-demand accessibility, and application-ready formats.

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National mapping agencies provide timely, relevant, and accurate geospatial intelligence in support of economic development, scientific research, natural resource management, navigation, safety, and national security.

This trend has led many NMAs to reevaluate how they interact with their customers. Many agencies have taken steps to adapt their business practices and production systems accordingly, but the demand for geospatial information is outstripping their ability to keep up with the increasing sophistication of their customers.

The Challenge

To meet these demands, NMAs must achieve greater levels of performance and quality in all business functions at an enterprise level. Increasing staff or adding equipment resources can accomplish this in a limited way but are solutions with diminishing returns. To really improve, agencies must

  • Streamline work processes.
  • Increase accuracy and product quality.
  • Eliminate data redundancy between functional business units.
  • Facilitate collaboration between analysts from different business units.
  • Expose the enterprise data holdings within the agencies, as well as among partners and external customers.
  • Facilitate data exchange among aeronautical, nautical, and topographic agencies.
  • Retire legacy systems gracefully.
  • Maximize the use of standards-based commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products.

Common Business Functions Among NMAs

There is no single technical solution for all mapping agencies. Each must adapt to the requirements of its particular domain. Each must work within its own special business and regulatory environment. But while they are each different in their specific data and map products and services based on whether their domain is aeronautical, topographic, or nautical, NMAs have common business functions and associated processes and procedures. These include

  • Defining their geography of interest
    • Assembling information relating to the mapping task
    • Assessing existing information sources
    • Defining requirements for new geospatial solutions
    • Setting standards for new geospatial solutions
  • Primary data collection
    • Planning the data acquisition program
    • Performing or contracting field data collection
    • Performing or contracting remote data collection
  • Data processing
  • Extracting and compiling digital information
  • Performing quality assurance
  • Instituting "one-touch" data maintenance across the enterprise
    • Defining enterprise data workflows
    • Centrally managing data workflows
  • Finalizing information products
  • Information dissemination
    • Cataloging information
    • Storing information
    • Developing dissemination mechanisms (digital and print)
  • Ensuring interoperability among all enterprise business systems
  • Providing access to, and integration with, other agencies, commercial organizations, and public offices.

Common Strategies to Improve Business Functions

There are common GIS-based strategies that all NMAs can employ to improve these business functions:

  • Maximizing the use of standards-based COTS products minimizes operational costs and production schedules while leveraging best practices for each domain. COTS-based solutions allow workflows, business rules, desktop applications, and Web services to be built on a common framework.
  • Adopting a service-oriented architecture (SOA) framework lets agencies leverage legacy data during transformation and provides flexible alignment of functions with business units, interoperability between working databases with various geospatial technologies, and extensive reuse of applications when provided as registered services.
  • Approaching change by business unit allows each unit to adapt and adopt workflow improvements, new applications, new services, and data model refinements independently while collaborating with other business units through the SOA.


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GIS-based systems simplify and accelerate map and chart production by helping mapping agencies streamline business processes, consolidate data holdings across the enterprise, and standardize production workflows.

NMAs are no longer just about mapping and charting. The increasingly sophisticated demands of their customers, which now include communities of users in the government and private sectors, and their own institutional requirements have changed their missions to providing leadership in geospatial data collection, management, and dissemination through a greater variety of products and solutions.

Thus, their situation has changed from stovepipe departmental GIS/processes/procedures for developing static map products to maximizing the value from the investment in digital information across the enterprise. Their systems must meet broader strategic goals, including

  • Providing accurate and timely geospatial products and services
  • Demonstrating the capabilities to adapt to new requirements and technologies
  • Extracting maximum value from geospatial information
  • Allocating resources effectively
  • Promoting collaboration throughout the organization, as well as through interdepartmental and interagency partnerships and collaboration with commercial/private organizations
  • Ensuring the effective planning, development, and administration of core business functions

NMAs worldwide must achieve these goals within the context of their particular national policies, markets, budgets, and assets. They need cost-effective COTS-based solutions that can integrate systems and databases and standardize business functions while providing maximum flexibility to adapt to their particular needs and situations. Esri ArcGIS solutions are used to meet the challenge of true integration of geodatasets, maps and globes, metadata, and process and workflow models.

More Information

For more information about how Esri software addresses these critical challenges, read the sidebar, "Technology Solutions for National Mapping Agencies," and also the following articles and poster in this issue.

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