The Nature of Geographic Information

17. Theme: Governmental Units


The FGDC framework also includes boundaries of governmental units, including:

  • Nation
  • States and statistically equivalent areas
  • Counties and statistically equivalent areas
  • Incorporated places and consolidated cities
  • Functioning legal minor civil divisions
  • Federal- or state-recognized American Indian reservations and trustlands
  • Alaska native regional corporations

FGDC specifies that:

Each of these features includes the attributes of name and the applicable Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) code. Features boundaries include information about other features (such as road, railroads, or streams) with which the boundaries are associated and a description of the association (such as coincidence, offset, or corridor. (FGDC, 1997, p. 20-21)


The USGS National Map aspires to include a comprehensive database of boundary data. In addition to the entities outlined above, the National Map also lists congressional districts, school districts, and ZIP Code zones. Sources for these data include "Federal partners such as the U.S. Census Bureau, other Federal agencies, and State and local agencies." (USGS, 2007).

To get a sense of the complexity of the features and attributes that comprise this theme, see the Governmental Units Data Model (This is a 36" x 48" poster in a 2.4 Mb PDF file.) [The link to the Governmental Units Data Model poster recently became disconnected. Instead look at the model diagrams in Part 5: Governmental unit and other geographic area boundaries of the FGDC Geographic Framework Data Content Standard.]


Try This!

View and download National Map governmental units data

  1. Access the Viewer here.
  2. Expand the pane containing the layer options by clicking on Overlays at the upper-left.
  3. Under Base Data Layers, check the box for the Governmental Unit Boundaries. You can expand this list and sub-select different boundary layers.
  4. As you zoom into larger map scales (using the slider bar at the upper-left of the map), additional boundary layers will become visible.
  5. If you wish to download an extract from the Governmental Unit Boundaries database, visit the National Map Download site and access the "Boundaries - National Boundary Dataset" section.
Penn State logo
This textbook is used as a resource in Penn State's Online Geospatial Education online degree and certificate programs. If this topic is interesting to you and you want to learn more about online GIS and GEOINT education at Penn State, check out our Geospatial Education Program Office.