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U.S. Geologic Survey


“The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is thrilled to be receiving this award from URISA and is immensely proud of the many USGS employees who have pioneered the application of GIS in the programs we carry out on behalf of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the citizens of our Nation”.

— Mark DeMulder, Director, USGS National Geospatial Program

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) made significant contributions to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and geospatial science in the early stages of development and continues to do so today. Because USGS data, research, innovations, information, and publications are publicly available, the USGS is a major contributor and driver to GIS progress across many levels of government and the private sector. The geospatially referenced scientific datasets and information provided by the USGS programs cover a broad range of natural and earth sciences. The USGS has been instrumental in developing and expanding the use of GIS for scientific investigations. Geospatial capabilities have enabled advancement of science techniques and methods that have spread and are used throughout the world. Geospatial technologies have facilitated sharing and distribution of this knowledge to the scientific community, decision makers, and the public. Good examples exist in many disciplines, but especially in the areas of natural hazards (fire, earthquakes, floods, and droughts), water quality and quantity, and ecosystem analysis. Early involvement in GIS development revolutionized the USGS science mission by facilitating multidiscipline data sharing and analysis. The following is in support of a nomination of the USGS to the URISA GIS Hall of Fame.

Early GIS Developments

The USGS, through its Geographic Applications Program, is deservingly given credit for “critical roles in firing up the remote sensing revolution [of the 1960s and 1970s], and engendering a major contribution to information systems education, training, research, and applications” (B. Wellar, 2012, Five major, early contributors to the foundations of information systems education, training, research, and applications, in Foundations of Urban and Regional Information Systems and Geographic Information Systems and Science. urisa.org. p. 60).

In the 1960’s, the Program conducted pioneering research in the use of high altitude and multispectral photography for cartographic applications, regional environmental assessments, and land use and land cover studies, and resulted in the development of the Anderson Land Use/Land Cover (LULC) classification system (named after James R. Anderson, Chief Geographer of the USGS in the 1970’s). Also referred to as the USGS classification system, it was designed to be used with high altitude photo and satellite remote sensing sources and became a significant contribution that was used and adapted for the next 30 years.

The Anderson LULC classification system was the basis for an important national program of data collection, archive, and distribution--the Land Use Data Analysis (LUDA) Program. The LUDA program built a foundational national database, at 1:250,000 and 1:100,000 scales, of LULC and associated data in the 1970’s and 1980’s that still serve historical and change requirements today. Beginning with LUDA, the USGS became an operational land cover mapping agency that now routinely uses Landsat and other remotely sensed imagery to produce periodic maps of the Nation’s land cover and land cover change.

A significant reason the LUDA national database has been available to all from the beginning, was the in-house development of an early GIS, the Geographic Information Retrieval and Analysis System (GIRAS). At the time, there were no commercially available products that could be used to build the LUDA database. The GIRAS was built from scratch as one of the very first GIS’s based on a topologically structured vector data model (in fact, USGS developers used the term “arc” for one-dimensional elements in 1973, well before ESRI’s ArcInfo was developed). Because GIRAS/LUDA data conformed to a topological vector model, they were ready for ingestion into modern GISes (beginning in the 1980’s with ArcInfo).

Early and Continuing Work in Producing and Supporting Production of Digital Map Data

In the 1970’s, at the peak of topographic mapping from field surveys and photogrammetry, the USGS began designing datasets for GIS and digital mapping. Original developments included the Digital Line Graph (DLG), first released in 1975, which became a standard format for transportation, hydrography, and other vector-based data for GIS, the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) which has provided gazetteer information for the Nation for more than 30 years, and the Digital Elevation Model (DEM), which was produced as a by-product of the analog orthophoto production process and became a standard digital product in raster format. Provision of these data, along with the LUDA land cover data, provided a catalyst to GIS in the 1980’s in a data scarce environment.

A major accomplishment for GIS was the development of the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Retrieval (TIGER) data. Working with the Census Bureau, the USGS scanned, vectorized, and attributed the transportation and hydrography data for the Nation from the USGS 1:100,000-scale topographic maps to form TIGER, which became the base for the 1990 Census and a standard GIS layer in many applications. In 1987, another USGS first was the design and development of digital orthophotos. With this development and in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Digital Orthophoto Quarter Quadrangles (DOQ’s) became available on a nationwide basis and served as the base for many GIS projects.

In the 1990’s, with the availability of the Internet, the USGS collaborated with Microsoft to create Terraserver, making the DOQ’s and other data easily available for download and ingestion into GIS. The early developments in digital data design and formatting led to later innovations, such as the Digital Line Graph-Enhanced model, the first feature-based GIS data design, which became the foundation for a nationwide National Hydrography Dataset (NHD). As with TIGER and the orthophoto program, the USGS worked with partners – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other Federal, State, and local agencies -- to build the NHD (Video Demos of National Hydrography Dataset), a comprehensive set of digital geospatial data and associated tools about surface water features such as streams, rivers and lakes.

Partnerships are essential in developing and maintaining geospatial datasets. 

The States became stewards of NHD data, providing additions, edits, and corrections in a stewardship model that is still used today. Just as building the NHD required a large partnership across the nation, maintaining the NHD also requires an extensive partnership, and can best be accomplished by those closest to the hydrography. Users within the States and Federal lands understand the hydrography around them and are motivated to ensure the accuracy of the NHD to meet their business needs. They are, therefore, ideally suited to become the stewards of the data, with an agency in each State managing the maintenance activities within the State.

The NHD can be used by water managers and scientists to make maps, perform upstream/downstream queries, and link other water-related information and user designed applications to the NHD to aid in decision making processes and scientific analyses. In 2006, this interagency collaboration produced NHDPlus, a suite of application-ready geospatial products that build upon and extend the capabilities of the medium-resolution NHD. NHDPlus integrates the NHD with the NED and the Watershed Boundary Dataset. The EPA and the USGS have linked many water quantity and quality databases and applications to NHDPlus, which greatly enhances the ability of researchers and water managers to analyze and model water flow and quality data.

Simultaneous to the development of NHD in the 1990’s, the USGS was also developing and making available over the Internet, the National Elevation Dataset (NED), accumulating the DEM acquisitions from the previous 25 years into a complete seamless nationwide coverage, and the first National Land Cover Dataset (NLCD) from Landsat Thematic Mapper images. Subsequent developments led to multiple coverages of the United States for hydrography, elevation, images, and land cover now incorporated in the national datasets that comprise The National Map.

To be meaningful to GIS users, datasets must be continually maintained and updated. An example of USGS contribution to continuous maintenance and updating of datasets is the NED, which serves as the elevation layer of The National Map and provides basic elevation information for earth science studies and mapping applications in the United States. In the 1990’s, the USGS moved from quadrangle areas to seamless nationwide layer-based datasets. The first of these completed was the NED with 30-meter horizontal spacing. The USGS has continued to improve the NED with elevations on a 10-meter horizontal spacing that is now available for the conterminous 48 states, and most recently with Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar) data generating elevations on a 3-meter horizontal spacing.

The National Map - Community Leadership in Topographic Mapping

Building upon its extensive experience in topographic mapping and GIS datasets, the USGS released its vision in 2001 for the topographic map of the 21st Century, The National Map, a seamless, continuously maintained, nationally consistent set of base geographic data; developed and maintained through partnerships; a national foundation for science, land and resource management, recreation, policy making, and national security; available over the Internet; and the source for revised topographic maps. The National Map (http://nationalmap.gov/about.html) consists of eight data layers: boundaries, elevation, geographic names, hydrography, land cover, orthographic images, transportation, and structures.

The seamless national datasets constructed in the 1990’s and early 2000’s became the base data for The National Map, with additional data from Federal, State, local, and tribal sources continuously being added as a result of partner and user engagement by USGS Geospatial Liaisons. These datasets are the nation’s source for publicly available, trusted, nationally consistent, integrated, and current topographic information available online for a broad range of uses. Recently, the USGS has started employing users’ feedback and information about industry trends to develop and continuously improve geospatial products and services that are verified to be valued by priority users and communities of use.

Going forward, The National Map is being developed to meet user needs, develop data cooperatively with State and local governments and others, improve quality using the latest technology (e.g., Lidar), and ensure the resulting data are incorporated in national and Federal decision making processes.

To improve availability of data assets and applications, The National Map transitioned in 2009 to a new visualization and product and service delivery environment, which includes an improved viewing platform, base map data and overlay services, and an integrated data download service (http://viewer.nationalmap.gov/viewers). The fast, cartographically designed base map services use datasets from The National Map and the National Atlas of the United States® (http://www.nationalatlas.gov). GIS tools are included with each of the applications to identify features, change display of coordinates, measure distances and areas, reverse geocode, and search for features by keyword or coordinates.

US Topo is the new digital graphic product generated and distributed from The National Map as a GeoPDF. Currently, all base layers of The National Map are represented on US Topo, as well as the United States National Grid shown on 1,000-meter grid lines and the metadata contained in the map border and collar information. Additional features such as railroads, wetlands, bathymetry, and shaded relief will be added as national datasets are identified and included in the databases. New US Topo maps will be generated approximately every three years. As of this writing, more than 54,000 have been produced since June, 2009. In March 2011, 56,000 US Topo maps were downloaded and by March 2012, downloads increased to 108,000 maps.

All historical USGS topographic maps originally released as paper prints have been scanned and georeferenced. These maps are being made available for download as GeoPDF and GeoTIFF files (http://www.nationalmap.gov/historical). Currently, more than 161,000 maps have been converted to digital format. Since September 2011, approximately 1.2 million GeoPDF files have been downloaded – averaging more than 5,700 per day.

Early Role in Developing Tools and Making Use of Satellite Remote Sensing Data

The USGS has been a leader in land remote sensing since the 1930’s when aerial photography began being acquired for use in mapping the topography and geography of the Nation. In the mid-1960’s, USGS Director William Pecora proposed the use of Earth orbiting satellites to image the entire globe repeatedly in order to provide timely information on the condition of the Earth’s natural resources. Pecora’s vision became Project EROS and, with NASA, resulted in the establishment of the Landsat Program and the USGS Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) Data Center in Sioux Falls,South Dakota. Landsat celebrates its 40th anniversary on July 23, 2012.

The USGS has been the steward of the Landsat program since the beginning, operating and managing the Landsat satellites currently in orbit, archiving and preserving over 3 million Landsat images, and distributing millions of Landsat images each year to users in more than 180 countries. The Landsat archive represents the longest and most comprehensive record of the Earth’s land surface ever assembled. Landsat’s earliest imagery, collected by the multispectral scanner system was recently added to the Memory of the World Register by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization because “scientists worldwide recognize that there exists only one accurate image record, spanning nearly four decades, of the Earth’s land surfaces, coastlines, and reefs at a scale revealing both natural and human-induced change.”

The USGS continues to expand its role as the Nation’s operational land remote sensing leader. The USGS hosts NASA’s Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center and provides data from the NASA Earth Observing System to users worldwide. Since 2007, these data can be downloaded at no cost. The USGS also hosts remote sensing collections from many other agencies, brokers and distributes Federal acquisitions of commercial imagery, and partners with international organizations to ensure that Earth observations are made available in times of need. As an example, when disasters strike, USGS disaster response coordinators provide State, Federal, and international agencies with satellite images, aerial photos, elevation and land cover data, and other information necessary for a prompt and effective response. The USGS has been a member of the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters since 2005 and plays a key role in assisting emergency responders, relief organizations, and disaster management teams worldwide.

In parallel with its de facto role as the Nation’s operational land remote sensing agency, the USGS has lived up to its reputation as a premier Earth Science agency by conducting innovative remote sensing scientific research and applications. An example is the work of the USGS Geography Applications Program in the 1960’s and 1970’s discussed above. USGS remote sensing research has expanded into many other areas, including mapping the extent of drought, the severity of wildfires, the condition of ecosystems, and the growth of cities. As USGS researchers look to the future, they will continue to push the rich USGS remote sensing heritage by advancing operational uses of new imaging and mapping technologies such as Lidar and radar.

Geospatial Datasets and Geographic Information Research

The foundation of GIS analysis, information and research is the availability of geospatially referenced data. The USGS collects and maintains a wide array of earth and natural science data that are publicly available. Published USGS data, information, and research can be found at http://pubs.er.usgs.gov.

At the request of the USGS, the National Research Council (NRC) developed recommendations in 2007 for a research agenda in GIS to support The National Map and the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The NRC provided short- and long-term recommendations on research priorities for the USGS Center of Excellence for Geospatial Information Science (CEGIS). The CEGIS began implementation of the recommendations from the NRC report with five research projects of high priority in the areas of design of the electronic topographic map, user-centered design of a Web interface, data integration, generalization, and ontology for The National Map.

CEGIS research in generalization and electronic topographic map design has already led to operational capabilities. Future research will include fusing geospatial data with non-spatial data, determining how an ontology of features can operationally support The National Map, representing temporal and spatial change, and other topics. The CEGIS will continue to develop research projects based on the recommendations in the report. This research will contribute significantly towards integrating capabilities that allow for innovative examination and representation of the Earth’s system as a whole.

Leadership and Management Role of the FGDC and Support of Standards Development

The Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), an interagency committee administered by the USGS, promotes the NSDI, the coordinated development, use, sharing, and dissemination of geospatial data on a national basis. Since 1990, NSDI initiatives have helped enable easy access to current, high quality, application-ready geospatial information that satisfies a broad range of users.

Standards are a key component of the NSDI and promote the development, sharing, integration, and use of geospatial data and the development of the NSDI. The FGDC develops geospatial data standards for implementing the NSDI, in collaboration with State, local, tribal governments, academic institutions, and the private sector. There are currently 26 FGDC endorsed geospatial standards and another 13 in development. The National Institute for Standards and Technology has approved the use of FGDC standards that include metadata, positional accuracy, and numerous data content standards.

Since 1994, the FGDC NSDI Cooperative Agreements Program has supported over 625 projects that created collaborations within all sectors of government, helped develop an understanding of geospatial information in organizations new to the NSDI, provided seed money to enable geospatial organizations to participate in the national effort to implement the NSDI, promoted the importance of geospatial data standards, promoted the development of standardized metadata in hundreds of organizations, and greatly expanded implementation of geospatial services on the Internet.

The FGDC implemented the 50 States Initiative to promote more effective intergovernmental geospatial planning, coordination, and management. In collaboration with the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) and the USGS State Geospatial Liaison network, the FGDC has provided grant funding to States to assist in their development of geospatial strategic and business plans to help identify collaborative opportunities for States, Federal agencies, and others. Since 2006, 48 States plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands have received support through this program.

The FGDC provides project management for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) -sponsored Geospatial Line of Business (GeoLoB) initiative. The GeoLoB improves Federal business processes and directly supports policy-making through more effective utilization of geospatial applications and information. An example is The Geospatial Platform which provides real-time access to multiple Federal data sets in an application-rich geospatial interface where collaborative tools and communities of interest can be utilized across Federal agencies and with their partners to present, analyze and address current issues, priorities, and missions. Another outcome of the GeoLoB is the OMB Circular A-16

Supplemental Guidance, which provides an important tool for data lifecycle, stewardship, and management activities aimed at improving data quality, accessibility, and use.


The USGS made significant contributions to GIS and science in the early stages of development and continues to do so today. As a leader in remote sensing and mapping, dating from the 1930’s with the introduction of aerial photography, the USGS conducted pioneering research in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the use of high altitude and multispectral photography for cartographic applications, regional environmental assessments, land use and land cover studies, and the design and development of digital geospatial data that became primary sources for GIS applications. Significant contributions during this time period include the formation of EROS, the launch of Landsat, LUDA, GIRAS and the development and distribution of Digital Line Graph and DEM digital cartographic data. These products set a trend of publicly available USGS digital data that was continued in the 1980’s with the development and release of TIGER with the Census Bureau and the digital orthophotos, a USGS innovation, collaboratively produced with the USDA providing multiple coverages of the United States with high resolution digital image data to support GIS applications. The USGS continued to lead data efforts in GIS in the 1990’s with the development of seamless National digital datasets including the NED, NHD, NLCD, and GNIS and through the FGDC, coordinated development, use, sharing, and dissemination of geospatial data on a National basis to promote the NSDI. The National datasets became the foundation databases for The National Map, the USGS topographic map of the 21st century that became the first available geospatial portal in 2001 and all data were made available for free download over the Internet, providing another major advance for GIS applications and users. Partnerships with Federal, State, local government agencies, and the private sector were essential to make GIS data, tools and applications available to all. The USGS continues its innovative solutions for GIS developing new data and capabilities through The National Map and partnering with government and private entities to advance data and application capabilities of the GIS industry.

In recognition of its exceptional contributions to the geospatial sciences, the development of a wide array of important and highly useful digital geospatial data sets, the development of partnerships with government agencies at all levels and with the academic and private sectors for maintaining those data sets and for the advancement of research and innovation in numerous aspects of geographic information systems and science, and its leadership with the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, the United States Geological Survey is nominated for induction into the URISA GIS Hall of Fame.

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