Metadata SWAT Teams:
A Success Story in Creating a Regional Clearinghouse Node

Robert A. Norheim, David L. Peterson, Teresa Z. Alcock, Nicholas R. Chrisman

Abstract: Despite executive orders and agency mandates, the creation of metadata is still a low-priority (and largely unfunded) activity. We have developed a successful approach to encouraging a wide variety of partners to develop metadata. Rather than relying on the contributor to create metadata, we send in a team of metadata specialists. This team can quickly document a set of coverages, thus providing a service to the contributor and also adding to the collection of metadata and data available for the community. The metadata team also educates partners about metadata software, the need for metadata, and the particulars of the metadata standard.


While what we now know as metadata - i.e., dataset documentation - has always been an important issue in GIS and many other fields, its profile was raised dramatically by the signing of Executive Order 12906 in 1994 (Clinton, 1994). This order directed all federal agencies to create metadata compliant with Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) standards (FGDC 1994) for all new geospatial datasets, as well as to develop schedules to document all existing datasets. The profile of the FGDC itself was raised when Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt decided to chair the committee, provoking a scramble on the part of other member agencies to send a higher-ranking administrator as their delegate to the committee. This has had the effect of raising the awareness of metadata within the agencies. However, in most cases, agencies received no additional funding for actually creating metadata. The burden fell on existing budgets and staff, both of which were typically already strained.

A similar situation existed at state and local levels. The creation of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), FGDC, and metadata standards at the federal level trickled down to raise the awareness of metadata within state and local agencies. FGDC provided seed money in many states to create a state coordinating body for geographic information, and these agencies spread the gospel of metadata. The value of metadata is generally immediately apparent to GIS practitioners once they become aware of just what benefits metadata can provide. However, many agencies are already trying to do more than they are capable of with the resources they have, and additional resources for something as tedious as metadata are not easy to obtain.

There are certainly exceptions to this. For example, the USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center (FRESC) has a specific budget that covers important but often overlooked components of research such as metadata and page charges. FRESC has hired a GIS specialist for whom creating metadata is a major portion of the job .

In other circles, such as non-profit organizations (NPOs), academia, and even private industry, awareness of metadata is much lower. There are no coordinating bodies to spread the word of metadata, and budgets are frequently more constrained than in government agencies.

Creating a regional clearinghouse node on the Olympic Peninsula

The Olympic Peninsula is an unusually diverse region which ranges from temperate rainforest to the rainshadow "banana belt" (Henderson et al. 1989, Buckingham et al. 1995), from alpine glaciers to the ocean. It also has a diversity of ownership, with significant acreage managed by the federal government, state agencies, Native American tribes, and timber companies (Figure 1). Objectives for management of natural resources in this region vary by agency and landowner, yet many physical and biological connections clearly transcend political boundaries (Peterson et al. 1997). The current focus on ecosystem management and regional planning makes it imperative that resource data be examined at large spatial scales. Analyses of vegetation patterns on the Olympic Peninsula (Turner et al. 1996) and in the western Cascade Range of Oregon (Spies et al. 1994) demonstrate the value of using diverse data sources across political boundaries to assess spatial patterns and managerial options. Furthermore, there are important linkages (e.g. anadramous fish) between the terrestrial ecosystems of the Peninsula and the surrounding marine environment (Cederholm et al. 1989, Bilby et al.1996, Stouder et al. 1997).

Olympic Peninsula Land Ownership

Figure 1 Public land ownership on the Olympic Peninsula

The Olympic Peninsula was one of the centers of conflict during the Pacific Northwest timber crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s (Dietrich 1992, Yaffee 1994, Durbin 1996). During this time, declining employment in the commercial timber industry due to increased automation and reduced timber supply coincided with the listing of the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis subsp. caurina) as an endangered species and the resultant closure of federal lands to logging. Political and social conflicts arose because of disagreements about the use of natural resources on public lands, with the owl and conservationists being blamed by many people for the loss of timber industry jobs. Out of this conflict, the Washington state legislature created the Olympic Natural Resources Center (ONRC), whose mission is "to foster and support the research and education necessary to provide sound scientific information on which to base sustainable forest and marine industries, and at the same time sustain ecological health."

Because of the diversity of ownership interests, there has been no single repository or access point for natural resource data on the Olympic Peninsula. ONRC, recognizing the integrative capabilities of geospatial information and GIS technology, sees these as important tools for accomplishing its mission. ONRC thus contracted with USGS FRESC Cascadia Field Station, located at the University of Washington College of Forest Resources, to begin building a regional geospatial clearinghouse for the Olympic Peninsula (Norheim, et al., 1999).

Metadata specialists

We began by contacting government agencies and major landowners on the peninsula, including Olympic National Park, Olympic National Forest, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, several tribes, and several counties. Most agencies we contacted expressed interest in the project and agreed to cooperate. However, we quickly realized that simply setting up a metadata server and creating a web site would not cause metadata to start flowing in from these partners, and that we had to be creative in promoting the creation of metadata. We also realized that it was in ONRC's interest to have metadata created, so that it was a reasonable use of our funding to actually pay for the creation of metadata. We then hired several staff as metadata specialists for the project.

Work began on documenting several large collections of data, including Olympic National Forest and Grays Harbor Regional Planning Commission, enabling the staff to become familiar with the FGDC and National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) standards. As our work expanded, we began to contact more and more holders of data, such as academic researchers, tribes, and NPOs, to see if they would agree to contribute metadata for our clearinghouse and offering to even create the metadata for them. For many contributors, we needed to explain the concept of metadata, the NSDI Clearinghouse, and clear up misconceptions regarding metadata. Thus, our metadata specialists quickly evolved beyond the technical skill of creating metadata to become skilled in outreach to partners and promoting the benefits of metadata and of our clearinghouse.

Eduating partners

Several misconceptions and concerns regarding metadata were raised by many of our potential partners. These included:


The team of metadata specialists, whom we starting referring to as our "metadata SWAT team" for their ability to quickly establish a relationship with a partner and document their data, has made the ONRC's Clearinghouse for the Olympic Peninsula a great success. We have over 650 metadata records, from over 40 partners. Our relationship with our partners has been mutually beneficial. By providing resources to document large numbers of legacy datasets, we enabled partners to "catch up" to the point where they need only to create metadata for new datasets as they go along. ONRC has generally received a copy of the dataset for its use, so the building of the metadata clearinghouse has also led to the building of a data clearinghouse.

The metadata team has forged new relationships between ONRC and the Olympic Peninsula community, and within the Peninsula GIS community itself. One aspect that has helped build these relationships is that ONRC is actually located on the peninsula and is seen as a member of the community. Had we been seen as a federal or even a university operation, we might have been viewed more circumspectly. As a "grand opening" for the clearinghouse, in February 1999 ONRC hosted a science conference that drew a capacity crowd, representing the diversity of interests in the Peninsula GIS community. The participants suggested a variety of improvements to the Clearinghouse that we have been implementing.

The achievement of the Clearinghouse has also meant success in other ways for ONRC. Not only was the conference seen as a very positive event locally, but also the Clearinghouse has begun to bring national recognition to ONRC.

Future plans

We are continuing our development of the ONRC Clearinghouse, both by developing more metadata and also bringing together more data resources for the Peninsula community. Also, we have secured funding to begin work on a clearinghouse for the North Cascades region, where we expect to use the same "SWAT team" approach to build a successful clearinghouse there.


This work has been funded by grants from the Olympic Natural Resources Center, the USGS Biological Resources Division, and the Federal Geographic Data Committee's Cooperative Agreements Program. We thank our SWAT team members, Mark Bourgeois, Alan Carter-Mortimer, Ella Elman, and David Jeschke, for their hard work in the trenches. We also thank Jeff Holm and the Washington State Geographic Information Council for hosting the ONRC node on the Washington State NSDI/NBII node.

For more information

Please visit the Olympic Natural Resources Center's web site at, and USGS FRESC Cascadia Field Station's web site at


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Buckingham, Nelsa M., Edward G. Schreiner, Thomas N. Kaye, Janis E. Burger, and Edward L. Tisch. 1995. Flora of the Olympic Peninsula. Northwest Interpretive Association, Seattle. 199 pages.

Cederholm, C.J., D. B. Houston, D.L. Cole, and W.J. Scarlett. 1989. Fate of coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) carcasses in spawning streams. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science 46(8):1347-1355.

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Turner, Monica G., David N. Wear, and Richard O. Flamm. 1996. Land ownership and landcover change in the southern Appalachian highlands and the Olympic Peninsula. Ecological Applications 6(4):1150-1172.

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Robert A. Norheim
David L. Peterson
USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center Cascadia Field Station
University of Washington College of Forest Resources
Box 352100
Seattle, WA 98195-2100,
206 543-9138, 206 543-1587

Teresa Z. Alcock
Olympic Natural Resources Center
P.O. Box 1628
Forks, WA 98331
360 374-3220

Nicholas R. Chrisman
University of Washington
Department of Geography
Box 353550
Seattle, WA 98195-3550
206 543-5870