1999 National Geo-Data Forum

Remarks by Dr. Neal Lane
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology

1999 National Geo-Data Forum
Making Livable Communities a Reality

Monday, June 7, 1999

Thanks for the kind introduction, Jack.  Congressman  Kanjorski, ladies and gentlemen, it’s great to see you again.  And thank you for the opportunity to address your National Forum today.  I was pleased to accept your invitation, because this forum's purpose fits squarely into at least two of this Administration's important priorities — Information Technology for the 21st Century (IT2) and Livable Communities.  You’ve already heard from Secretary Babbitt on the Livable Communities Initiative.  As Secretary Babbitt explained this morning, the Department of Interior will play a key role as chair of the Federal Geographic Data Committee.  The Lands Legacy Initiative within the DOI proposes a range of flexible new tools and resources to help states, local communities, and tribes preserve important natural resources for generations to come.

So I would like to focus my remarks this morning on the other major Administration initiative that directly ties in to the purpose of your forum — the IT2 Initiative, starting with a quick bit of history on the evolution of Information Technology within the field of geographic information.  Then I want to speculate just briefly about what kind of technological future may be in store for your professions as a result of the initiative.

As participants in this forum, you are leaders and innovators in this remarkable industry of Information Technology and Geo-Spatial Data, and you have an important voice in shaping the future of this industry.

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) defines geographic information as "information about objects found on the earth's surface, including their locations, shapes and description."  You probably wouldn’t be as surprised as I was to hear that — according to NAPA — geographic information plays a role in about half of the gross domestic product of the United States.  Major economic and industrial sectors such as agriculture, transportation, defense, land management, community development, construction, and real estate depend to varying degrees on geographic information.  Clearly, this industry contributes enormously to the economic prosperity of the United States.

Of course, like much information, geographic data needs to be put in context to be really useful.  Here’s a true story that I hope will illustrate.

Several years ago, two physicists from the East Coast were driving across Texas to visit the site of the supercollider that was to be built in Waxahatchie.  They noted the strange spelling of the town’s name, and tried to figure how to pronounce it.  The first said he thought it should be “WAX-uh-hatch-ee,” and the second said he thought it was “wox-uh-HATCH-ee.”  They debated back and forth for a good 30 minutes as they approached the town.

To settle the argument, the two agreed that when they reached the town they would stop and ask a local resident the correct pronunciation.  They were also hungry, so they pulled into a fast food restaurant just off the highway.  They walked to the counter, and one of the pair said to the waitress, "My colleague and I can't seem to figure out how to pronounce the name of this place. Will you tell me where we are — and please say it very slowly so that I can understand?"

The waitress looked at him and said, very loudly and very slowly: "Buuurrrgerrr Kiiiinnnng."

Now, that was also geographic information, but not particularly useful to the traveling physicists.  So I’m pleased that the focus of this forum — “Making Livable Communities a Reality” — reflects the real value of geographic information in making decisions affecting our communities.  We are building geographic information systems and applying them to some of the most important and complex societal problems that communities around the world face, from food production and land-use planning to transportation, public safety, education, environmental protection, ecosystem management, and many, many others. Perhaps even more important, we are shaping completely new ways of dealing with vast amounts of new information and developing new knowledge that will benefit our communities, not only today but also for generations to come.

With this in mind, I would like to take a few minutes to reflect on how information technology has evolved through a remarkably fertile, unstructured — even chaotic — -collaborative process.  I will then provide a brief overview of the President's IT2 and Livable Communities Initiatives, and finally, I’ll try to challenge your thinking about where all of this might lead in the future.

Evolution of IT and Progress through Collaboration

So, first, how did we get to where we are today?  The diversity of representation here at this forum reflects the breadth of the collaborative process that has brought us this far in the use of geographic information and related technologies.  All levels of government, the private sector, and academia are engaged in the process of figuring out effective ways to collaborate, cooperate, and serve our communities  —  and help make them more livable.

Over the past 30 years, developments in many scientific fields have come together to enable a set of technologies that make geographic information systems dramatically more capable and affordable.  We have pushed the frontiers of materials science, optics, electronics, and many other disciplines to make possible gigabyte zip drives and Internet access for average citizens across the country.

Today, scientists and nonscientists alike can marvel at the wonder and the power of science and technology.  At the same time, we share a tremendous responsibility to consider how new knowledge and technologies intersect with the needs and the fundamental values of society.  We stand today at a crossroads of scientific opportunities and societal needs, where our most challenging task is to find ways of vigorously pursuing both objectives at the same time.  For example, we have solved the age-old problem of accurately tagging locations — -"geo-referencing" — with the Global Positioning System.  The GPS technology was made possible by the invention of the laser in

1960, followed by decades of patient basic research in atomic and optical physics and the invention and development of the atomic clock, which allowed unprecedented accuracy in timekeeping.  GPS enables us to quickly gather and use
geographic data with a high degree of accuracy in a common reference framework.

To help our country reap some of the obvious informational benefits of spatial data, President Clinton issued an executive order early in his Administration calling for the development of a coordinated National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) through cooperation between the private sector and Federal, State, local, and tribal governments.  The goal is to enable current and accurate data to be readily available to contribute locally, nationally, and globally to economic growth, environmental quality, and social progress.  A process is already underway to generate the standards and mechanisms that will enable this vision to become more and more complete.

You in this room have all been working on putting the NSDI into action.  As NSDI stakeholders, you are working to bring data and technology into the democratic process.  From developing accurate and well-documented data, to making those data accessible through the NSDI Clearinghouse on the Internet, to developing interoperable GIS applications and decision-support tools, you are addressing technical issues.  You are also exploring new ways of working together and building relationships for using geographic data and information in a “virtual environment.”

But, with these rapid advances in collecting and organizing valuable data of interest to many sectors, come new challenges.
I think it’s very important for us to recognize that our nation's

progress in information technology and in many other areas reflects the strengths that come from the core American values of
freedom, enterprise, and cooperation.  Our challenge now is to continue to nourish those qualities and, with the support of our public, to expand the ways in which we bring these capabilities to
bear on the wide range of issues in our society.  We who are scientists and engineers have a special responsibility because
we have special knowledge.  We must step beyond our agencies, companies, campuses, laboratories, and institutes into the center of our communities to engage in active dialogue with our fellow citizens.  We can add our personal initiative to government initiatives to help improve the livability of our communities.

The President's IT2 Initiative

It is precisely this kind of investment in scientific discovery and the expansion of resulting new technologies into wider and more diverse communities that is at the heart of the President's Initiative on Information Technology for the 21st Century.  This coordinated multiagency program of research will help scientists and engineers work better across many academic disciplines, organizational boundaries and economic sectors.  It will enable them to discover the IT of the future and reach out to spread the wealth of knowledge that we will gain, as well as that we have gained in recent years, so that more Americans can share its benefits.  In the FY2000 budget, President Clinton and Vice President Gore proposed a 28 percent increase (an additional $366 million) in the government's investment in information technology research. This initiative will support three kinds of activities:

First, long-term information technology research that will lead to fundamental advances in computing and communications, in the same way that government investment beginning in the 1960s has led to today's Internet and ongoing computer revolution.
Second, advanced computing for science and engineering research that, through sophisticated computer modeling and simulation, will ultimately lead  to breakthroughs such as reducing the time required to develop life-saving drugs; design cleaner, more efficient engines; and more accurately predict tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and climate change.

Third, research on the economic and social implications of the Information Revolution, including such issues as privacy, security, economic productivity — in a world of accelerating e-commerce.  It will also address the need to help train additional IT workers at our colleges and universities.

The potential benefits of IT2 are compelling:

As we all know, past government research helped create the Internet, the first graphical Web browser, and advanced microprocessors.  These advances strengthened American leadership in the IT industry, which now accounts for one-third of U.S. economic growth and employs 7.4 million Americans — at wages that are more than 60 percent above the average for other industries.  All sectors of the US economy are using IT to compete and win in global markets.

Information technology is changing the way we live, work, learn, and communicate with each other.  Advances in IT can improve the way we educate our children, enable persons with disabilities to lead more independent lives, and improve the quality of health care and education for rural Americans through

telemedicine and distance learning.  Advances in supercomputers, simulation, and broad-band networks are creating a new window into the natural and the engineered world — making IT an invaluable tool for scientific and engineering discovery.

I have given you only a brief overview of the rationale and elements of the Initiative.  The details are given in an implementation plan, based on the recommendations of the President’s IT Advisory Committee, or PITAC, that lays out the plans of each of the six agencies participating in the Initiative (on the White House OSTP web site.  Indeed, the strength and promise of IT2 is largely due to the value added by the cooperative efforts of these agencies working together through the President’s National Science and Technology Council.  Now let me say just a word about where we stand in the approval process for our initiative.

As you may know, the Chairman of the House Science Committee has released a draft of his "Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Act."  I am pleased that Chairman Sensenbrenner agrees with the President’s and Vice President’s commitment to significantly increase funding for IT research and development in the FY2000 budget.

I look forward to working with Chairman Sensenbrenner and the House Science Committee in the days ahead to draft bipartisan legislation that will ensure adequate funding for this critical national research area. The President’s FY2000 balanced budget proposal includes $366 million for information technology research following the advice of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Council.

I am concerned, however, that the overall Republican budget would severely cut funding for research and development — not increase it.  The House Appropriations committee that oversees the National Science Foundation Budget, for example, would slash spending by $7.6 billion from the Administration’s request, leading to deep cuts at NSF and NASA.  Although the IT authorized legislation is a welcome sign from Chairman
Sensenbrenner, it is difficult to see how his bill could be funded under the allocations the Appropriations Chairmen have been given.  These untenable allocations all but guarantee that the President, the PITAC, the Vice President, and the Chairman of the House Science Committee would all be ignored in their bipartisan call for increased investments in long-term information technology research.

Let me give you just one not too far fetched example of a potential breakthrough that may be possible as a result of IT2 research, "intelligent agents" (mobile, autonomous s/w) that can roam the Internet, retrieving and summarizing the information sought in a vast ocean of data.  Some of these agents might be specially versed in, for instance, dealing with spatial data.  They will be able to draw not only on our National Spatial Data Infrastructure, but also on universes of related data to find the
current and accurate information needed to deal with local, national, or global issues of economic growth, environmental quality, and social progress.  Research might be directed to developing effective methods of data-mining that are effective for large, dispersed databases.  Research might develop new models and new modeling processes for phenomena involving multiple scales and enormous complexity (such as species invasion in an ecosystem and the consequences for conservation biology, biological control, and agriculture).

Perhaps most important, these s/w "agents" will be able to deal with data challenges in the context of our processes of discovery, learning, exploration, cooperation, and communication.  They will facilitate "co-laboratories" and aid in decision-making.  They may incorporate feedback.  For instance, as I sit at my screen they might sense (from my reaction times or even observed facial
expressions or head fallen to the table) that boredom or frustration has set in, and switch to a different approach — perhaps concluding something like "I can see that Neal doesn't like this graphic — better go to plan B."  (Or at a talk, "agents" might scan the audience and see how it's going!)

That's just one example.  Whatever the most promising areas turn out to be, we will continue to support investment in computing and communications research and in future IT that will enable continued American leadership.  In doing so, we will also keep two important things in mind — first, we must make sure that the opportunities of the Information Age belong to all our children — those at home, down the street, across town, and across the nation; second, we must make sure our children actually acquire 21st century skills so that all the computers and the connections in the world don't go to waste.

The information revolution remains very much a work in progress; it is still evolving and developing — in a nonlinear and unpredictable way.  And we still have a thing or two to learn about sifting through the sea of information that comes at us from all directions to find the facts and ideas we really want or need — in other words, how to cope with information overload.

Along the way, we must make sure we don’t become overconfident.  We must not be distracted by things and stuff — no matter how amazing they may be.  As Daniel Boorstin said in his book The Discoverers, “The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.”


Let me conclude with one of President Clinton's favorite quotes from Ben Franklin's writings:  "The progress of human knowledge will be rapid and discoveries made of which we at present have no conception.  I begin to be almost sorry I was born so soon, since I cannot have the happiness of knowing what will be known in years hence." The President has noted that this view stands in stark contrast to the dark and frightening depictions of the future we now see in so many books, movies, and television shows.  I share with him the idea that working together, we can make Ben Franklin's vision a reality — with scientific and technological advancements contributing to flourishing communities, peace, and general well-being for all the world's people.

Thank you for allowing me to share some thoughts and some excitement and optimism about our bright future.

Office of Science and Technology Policy
1600 Pennsylvania Ave, N.W
Washington, DC 20502

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1999 National Geo-Data Forum

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Improving Federal Laboratories to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century

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