Metadata Matters
This paper appears in

Proceedings of The Coastal Society 17th International Conference (TCS 17)
Portland, Oregon, July, 2000.

© Copyright reserved by The Coastal Society and Dawn Wright

May be freely distributed electronically in whole or in part, but please keep this notice attached and do not alter the text.

Metadata Matters: A National Geospatial Clearinghouse
for the Oregon Coast

Dawn Wright, Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University
Gillien Duvall, Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University, Presenter at Conference
Brian Ward, Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University


Although much data and information are available for the coast of Oregon, they are scattered in various formats among several federal, state, and local agencies, research institutes and universities. In the past there has been no central repository or access point for all natural resource geographic data for the Oregon coast. Therefore, as a collaborative effort between university, federal, state, and regional entities, an Oregon Coast Geospatial Clearinghouse was developed to disseminate natural resources data to organization and individuals for management, research and educational applications. The clearinghouse (, funded by the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) Cooperative Agreements Program, is a searchable node of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The node includes coastal and marine resource thematic data and FGDC- compliant metadata contributed by Oregon partners in the project (the Tillamook Coastal Watershed Resource Center, Ecotrust, the Pacific Northwest Coastal Ecosystems Regional Study, and Oregon State University), as well as embedded URL linkages to online data throughout the state. Protocols are currently being established for maintenance and update, and training will be provided to clearinghouse users and cooperators. The clearinghouse is designed in such a way as to be easily accessible and understood by coastal managers, scientists, decision-makers and the general public desiring to obtain geographic information on coastal resources.


The coast is a region where complex political and resource issues are increasingly being negotiated and balanced. The mild climate, ocean access, wildlife, scenic, timber, and mineral resources of the Oregon coast easily attracted the initial settlement and economic development of hundreds of communities. Over the past 150 years, the landscape and ecosystems of the Oregon coast (Figure 1), already subject to many variable natural forces, have been affected the most by human activities (Stein et al., 1996).

Figure 1. The Oregon Coastal Zone extends seaward to the edge of the Territorial Sea, 3 miles offshore, and inland to the crest of the Coast Range, except in the Rogue, Umpqua, and Columbia River basins. On the Columbia River, the coastal zone extends to Puget Island, near the Clatsop County line; on the Umpqua, to Scottsburg at the head of the tide; on the Rogue, to Agness, above the head of the tide. (Map courtesy of Randy Dana, Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, Coastal Division).

As the economy and culture of Oregon rely so heavily on natural resources, it is vitally important that the public, political leaders, extension agents, resource managers, and resource users be better informed about the ecosystem status and trends, and the nature of the forces affecting ecosystems. For example, analyses of vegetation patterns in the western Cascades of Oregon demonstrate the value of using diverse data sources across political boundaries to assess spatial patterns and managerial options (Cohen et al., 1995; Sachs et al., 1998; Turner et al., 1999). Currently however, such data are widely scattered, often duplicated across multiple agencies or research groups, and largely inaccessible except by word of mouth. Tracking down desired data and metadata remains a daunting task for managers and scientists. For the general public the task is even more difficult. Many data sets are restricted to individual projects and then shelved, eliminating the potential for usefulness in a myriad of additional planning, management, and scientific projects. Managers, scientists, and the public have all expressed confusion over the complexity of identifying data at suitable scales, formats, and quality for designated management areas.

Clearly there has been a need for an established clearinghouse, as well as a unified, policy-driven data framework. Clearinghouses are the primary means for implementing the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI — President Clinton's Executive Order 12906 called for the establishment of the NSDI in order to promote sharing of geospatial data throughout all levels of government, academia, and private and non-profit sectors. The NSDI, with its timely focus on rethinking the methods of spatial data delivery to users, represents a welcome change from the centralist period in geographic information management when federal agencies dominated decisions and data resources. The NSDI recognizes that local empowerment will work only if there are local groups to take up the challenge of data dissemination. For the state of Oregon, a partnership of Oregon State University (OSU) with the Pacific Northwest Coastal Ecosystems Regional Study (PNCERS, funded by the Coastal Ocean Program of NOAA and the Oregon Coastal Management Program of Oregon's Department of Land Conservation and Development), the Tillamook Coastal Watershed Resource Center (TCWRC, formerly one of 28 National Estuary Projects established nationwide by the EPA), and Ecotrust (one of the largest non-profit environmental conservation organizations in the Pacific Northwest and a leader in public access GIS), and the State Service Center for Geographic Information Systems, was funded by the NSDI via the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) Cooperative Agreements Program.

The primary objective was to develop a searchable Clearinghouse node consisting of pointers to coastal and marine resource data contributed by the initial partnership, as well as embedded URL linkages to coastal data throughout the state of Oregon. In general, clearinghouses provide a valuable means not only for delivery of spatial delivery via the Internet, but more importantly for advertising the existence of useful data via metadata, including geographic coverage, data quality, inventory, and further processing requirements. In so doing, clearinghouses also help to minimize the duplication of effort involved in spatial data collection and processing.

Metadata and Why it Matters

Metadata are information about data, such as its geographic coverage, quality, completeness, accuracy, etc. They are a "pedigree" of sorts for a data set, helping the user to judge its "fitness for use" or reliability, thereby facilitating more appropriate and efficiently use. In addition, metadata allow a potential user, for comparative purposes, to understand how the data were collected, and provide the all-important details of how one can actually obtain the data in question, or who best to contact. Data that do not have accompanying metadata are often hard to find, difficult to access, troublesome to integrate, and perplexing to understand or interpret. If a significant amount of effort and money have been invested in the collection of data, especially if one wishes others to be able to use and re-use them, that investment will surely be enhanced by having the appropriate metadata on hand (e.g., Larson et al., 1998).

A national content standard has been established by the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) for metadata, ensuring that it fully outlines all the vital information pertaining to a data set's source, content, format, accuracy, and lineage (i.e., what processing changes the data set has gone through over time). All of the metadata records in the Oregon Coast Geospatial Clearinghouse are FGDC-compliant.

Technical Approach

Existing FGDC-compliant metadata and accompanying digital databases were acquired from cooperating organizations on the original grant (PNCERS, TCWRC, Ecotrust, and OSU). FGDC-compliant metadata was created where needed. This will be facilitated by metadata- collection software developed by the NOAA Coastal Services Center ( FGDC parsing software (mp) was used to ensure correct format before final indexing and loading into the clearinghouse. The metadata-parsing software optionally creates both HTML and SGML versions of the metadata.

Next, the metadata were indexed for clearinghouse searches using specialized software provided by the FGDC (Isite v. 2.06a for clearinghouse node services) running on a Sun Ultra 10. Unix server was chosen over NT machine as it

provides more integrated and stable network support, particularly as a web server, and is still the superior operating system in terms of handling large data sets, complex software, higher-quality graphic output, and processing speed. After testing to ensure that the node was working as expected, it was registered with the FGDC. Registration with the FGDC rendered the metadata on the node accessible to users worldwide via the clearinghouse gateway at the FGDC web site (

In addition to making metadata available through the search mechanism of the national clearinghouse gateway, a comprehensive web site was constructed for the project, that includes not only downloadable metadata and data, but tools for submitting additional data (for which clearinghouse personnel will create FGDC-compliant metadata), linkages to interactive, online data sets elsewhere in the state of Oregon, information on the original clearinghouse partners, digital images and visualizations of the Oregon coast and continental shelf, and documents and publications related to the original FGDC grant (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The Oregon Coast Geospatial Clearinghouse at

The site also links to a web-based discussion forum open to anyone in the state (research, manager, teacher, student, web wanderer, etc.) who has interest in the clearinghouse and would like to contribute an idea or comment.

It was also determined which federal state, and private organizations subsequent to the original partners would be potential contributors to the clearinghouse. Steps were taken to: (1) identify accurate contact information for each organization and its GIS manager; (2) describe what data layers are available; and (3) compile metadata for each data layer of each organization. All submitted data are required to adhere to FGDC standards. Although all organizations will be encouraged to participate fully, those with proprietary interests (e.g., private landowners) may simply provide contact information and some limited description of the data.

In addition, the clearinghouse project is now serving as one of the testbeds for a new project funded by the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science to improve the usability of the national clearinghouse gateway (see The Oregon Coast Geospatial Clearinghouse is being evaluated in terms of user friendliness for searching and downloading both data and metadata.


In principle the above activities should help to build or strengthen relationships among organizations in Oregon that support digital geographic data coordination for the coast. Statewide coordination of this type may serve as an example to other coastal states, and stimulate growth of similar clearinghouse efforts. The Oregon project is closely related to ongoing projects in Washington state on the Olympic Peninsula, (, in Florida (, and Alaska (

Clearinghouses have great merit not only because of their relevance to the NSDI, but because they promise unparalleled collaboration between academe, state/federal government, and private non- profit entities. This will lead to an important institutional framework for further regional cooperation, helping to identify major stakeholders in coastal management, and to organize thoughts and efforts towards jointly identified coastal issues.

Future activities related to the Oregon Coast Geospatial Clearinghouse include:

- development of an online mapping tool for Oregon coastal data. The application will enable users to create digital maps over the web using geographic data and metadata stored on our servers. Though internet map servers are not nearly as robust as desktop GISs, they provide a quick, effective, and often entertaining means by which to view and manipulate spatial data (and accompanying metadata) before making the decision to download to a local system.

- preparation of a framework (database structure) document, as well as protocols for adding additional data layers, metadata, and URLs, once participation in the clearinghouse by agencies other than the original cooperators is firmly established.

- development of a new, user-configurable metadata entry tool in cooperation with the Northwest Alliance for Computational Science & Engineering (NACSE,, that may supercede current FGDC tools and provide more adequate long-term documentation of spatial data sets.

- consideration of "once we build it, how do we get them to come?" We hope to do a fairly thorough evaluation of the usage of the clearinghouse web site (i.e., site statistics, number of hits, from what hosts, etc.), and will explore additional ways to spur its growth, utility, and influence in the state of Oregon and the broader coastal resource management community.


Cohen, W.B., T.A. Spies, and M. Fiorella. 1995a. Estimating the age and structure of forests in a multi ownership landscape of western Oregon, USA, International Journal of Remote Sensing, 16:721-746.

Larson, K., G. Burton, P. Scarrah, and B. Snyder, 1998, Don't duck metadata, Surv. Land Inf. Sys., 59, 169-173.

Sachs, D. L., P. Sollins, and W.B. Cohen. 1998. Detecting landscape changes in the interior of British Columbia from 1975-1992 using satellite imagery, Canadian Journal of Forest Research 28:23-36.

Stein, J. E., R. J. Bailey, A. E. Copping, and G. McMurray. 1996. Executive Summary of the Pacific Northwest Coastal Ecosystems Regional Study. Workshop Proceedings, NOAA Coastal Ocean Program.

Turner, D.P., W.B. Cohen, R.E. Kennedy, K.S. Fassnacht, and J.M. Briggs. 1999. Relationships between leaf area index and Landsat TM spectral vegetation indices across three temperate zone sites, Remote Sensing of Environment 70:52-68.

Last update: March 18, 2000

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