Decision making, operations and planning at all levels of government in Massachusetts, including some mission critical functions, increasingly rely on the capabilities of geographic information systems (GIS) to provide information, create maps and perform analyses.  Many businesses, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions similarly rely on GIS in their daily operations.

At the municipal level, GIS is being used in public safety and emergency response, property assessment, planning, public health, permitting, school administration, conservation and public works.  Regional agencies are using GIS for transportation  planning, economic development studies, housing studies, regional development plans and to provide technical assistance to communities on local planning and zoning issues.  At the state level, agencies are using GIS for public safety, emergency management and pre-disaster mitigation, permitting review, site development, transportation corridor planning,  asset management, natural resource inventory, water supply protection, open space planning and many other purposes.

More and more GIS is showing up on municipal web sites - see examples .  Regional planning agencies are also moving GIS information on-line - e.g. MAPCs on-line mapping and data exploration tool.  State agency web sites with on-line mapping include Department of Revenue, Department of Environmental Protection, Coastal Zone Management, State Police, Information Technology Division as well as MassGIS itself.

Outside of government, there is widespread use of sites such as Google Maps, MapQuest, and Yahoo! Maps as well as on-line mapping from real estate web sites such as Zillow and Coldwell Banker.  Use of GIS tools is common in many other business sectors including environmental site evaluation, planning and engineering, survey, retail location, health care, insurance, marketing, and delivery services.

These public and private sector applications rely on having up-to-date, accurate, and complete map information or "spatial data".  Many government agencies rely on the same few essential spatial data sets, often obtained from other agencies, as the base for their use of GIS.  Also, it should be recognized that much private sector GIS activity depends on public sector data - for example, Google Maps photo base map for Massachusetts includes imagery from MassGIS, and the roads (from Navteq) are being updated through a public/private partnership between the Executive Offices of Public Safety and Transportation, MassGIS and Navteq, a private company.

In an increasingly electronic world, key GIS data layers need to be recognized as a shared resource - the Massachusetts Spatial Data Infrastructure.  Too often Massachusetts spatial data has been developed and  maintained haphazardly through whatever funding and staffing agencies can put together, on occasion through ad hoc agreements between agencies; there is no systematic, sustainable approach to developing and maintaining a shared data infrastructure.  This ad-hoc approach has resulted in agencies using data that are not current or complete, or in redundant and uncoordinated efforts to create or maintain data.  Lack of accurate, accessible and standardized data hinders effective service delivery and limits public agency options for developing operational efficiencies and using GIS to support policy priorities and respond to public needs.

The Strategic Plan for Massachusetts' Spatial Data Infrastructure describes the current use of spatial information use in Massachusetts and provides a framework for addressing the overall lack of coordination. The vision presented in the strategic plan provides recommendations for the development and maintenance of the four most widely used and important map "layers":

  1. Photo base map ("orthoimagery ", including the infrared spectrum and associated elevation data),
  2. Standardized road centerline network with address ranges, and
  3. Standardized parcel lines as shown on municipal tax maps (these are not yet available statewide),
  4. Critical infrastructure locations (mapped via address to the parcel/building level; not yet available statewide).

The first three layers are on the list of National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) framework spatial data layers published by the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC).  The fourth layer, geocoded critical infrastructure, includes those critical infrastructure facilities and locations identified by the national Homeland Security Infrastructure Program (HSIP) which can readily be geocoded from parcel level address information and/or building outlines.

National Spatial Data Infrastructure

In 1995, President Clinton issued an Executive Order calling for the establishment of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI).  The NSDI is defined as the technologies, policies, and people necessary to promote sharing of geospatial data throughout all levels of government, the private and non-profit sectors, and the academic community.

The goal of the NSDI is to reduce duplication of effort among agencies, improve quality and reduce costs related to geographic information, to make geographic data more accessible to the public, to increase the benefits of using available data, and to establish key partnerships with states, counties, cities, tribal nations, academia and the private sector to increase data availability.  More information about the NSDI can be found at

Fifty States Initiative

The Fifty States Initiative outlines a fundamental change in the way all governments will work together in the future to build the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). Instead of the current “build it and they will come” philosophy that relies on random grants, Federal agencies will implement a partnership approach that emphasizes strategic and business planning with specifically targeted implementation grants, performance measures and incentives.

The Fifty States Initiative is one of twelve planning activities that are either complete or “in development” as a result of the Future Directions plan at the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC).  For further details on all activities, see its web page at:  The Fifty States Action Plan was approved by the Board of Directors of the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) representing GIS coordination councils (like MassGIS) in December 2004.  Under this initiative, the FGDC, through the USGS CAP grant program, has supported a variety of state level activities which further the goals of the NSDI.  In addition, the FGDC has developed overall criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of coordination efforts at the state level and has also provided templates for state planning activities such as our own Massachusetts Strategic Plan.

In short, this strategic planning process will not only give us a framework for GIS development in Massachusetts, it will also vastly improve the level of coordination and the potential for partnership with the Federal government.