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Myth Busters: What’s the True Motivation for Geospatial Coordination?

Posted By John Palatiello, Thursday, May 23, 2013

MAPPS has long been active in working with the public sector to encourage the efficient utilization of geospatial data. As an advocate and partner, the association has been a proponent of reforms within the government and the private sector. However, recently those motives have been called into question.

Despite being a long time participant in policy issues, such as Congressman Doug Lamborn’s legislation, the "Map It Once, Use It Many Times” Act, H.R. 1604, MAPPS has been the subject of recent criticism that has been based largely on myth. Let’s look some facts regarding Rep. Lamborn’s legislation.

Myth: MAPPS is leading a private sector takeover of Federal mapping activities in the United States.

In fact, MAPPS’s support for greater utilization of the private sector in Federal mapping is based on decades of independent studies and recommendations … including many by the government itself.


As long ago as 1932, a committee of the House of Representatives expressed concern over the extent to which the government engaged in activities which might be more appropriately performed by the private sector. Among the activities identified as engaged in government competition with the private sector was mapping. Each time a study has been conducted on the Federal surveying and mapping ("geospatial”) establishment, a common conclusion has been reached. Whether conducted by the White House, Congress, the agencies themselves, OMB or independent Federal research organizations, these studies recommended more contracting in this field. The following are excerpts from these studies:

private cartographic contract capability is not being used sufficiently. We found this capacity to be broad and varied and capable of rendering skilled support ... Contract capability is a viable management alternative ... Its use should be encouraged in lieu of continued in-house build-up

Office of Management and Budget

Task Force on Mapping, Charting, Geodesy and Surveying, 1973

The Investigative Staff recognizes...contract is essential that this option be explored more fully...early consideration must be given to the use of qualified private contractors

House Appropriations Committee

Investigative Staff

Study of BLM and Forest Service Cadastral Survey Programs, 1980

commercial resources offer time-proven expertise and professionalism in a wide range of cartographic activities.

National Academy of Sciences

Study on NOAA's Office of Charting and Geodetic Services, 1985

The private sector can play an important role in providing BLM with the massive amounts of data it requires for its three LIS (land information systems) components. BLM can avoid investing in necessary labor and technology by drawing on the capabilities of the private sector for the data gathering phase

Bureau of Land Management

"Managing our Land Information Resources", 1989

(contracting) is an important management tool to raise productivity, cut costs and improve the quality of Government services (the advantage of which is) efficiency, quality and innovation in the delivery of goods and services ... specific areas where the Government could place greater reliance on private sector providers include ... map-making activities

Budget of the United States Government, FY 1990

Office of Management and Budget, January, 1989

(USGS should be) allocating adequate NMD resources to information management and user/donor coordination, and if necessary, increasing these relative to traditional data production programs

National Academy of Sciences

"Spatial Data Needs", February, 1990

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will experiment with a program of public-private competition to help fulfill its mission ... The experience of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which contracts out 30 to 40 percent of its ocean floor charting to private firms, shows that the private sector can and will do this kind of work.

Office of the Vice President

"Creating A Government That Works Better & Costs Less"

Report of the National Performance Review, September, 1993

Thirty-nine federal departments, agencies and bureaus, including the U.S. Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, Defense Mapping Agency and National Mapping Division of the Department of the Interior, employ 7,000 workers and spend approximately $1 billion in surveying and mapmaking. Mapmaking is a service that is readily available from private industry at competitive costs. All government mapmaking activities should be opened to bids from private-sector suppliers.

Heritage Foundation

"Cutting the Deficit and Improving Services by Contracting Out", March, 1995

"During the course of our hearings, it became abundantly clear that there are certain activities that the Federal government has performed in-house which can and should be converted to the private sector. Areas such as architecture and engineering, surveying and mapping, laboratory testing, information technology, and laundry services have no place in government. These activities should be promptly transitioned to the private sector.”

Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY)

Debate in Senate on his legislation that became the FAIR Act,

Congressional Record, July 27, 1998

Direct that US commercial satellite imagery be the primary source of data used for government mapping … facilitate the acquisition of commercial imagery for other Federal agencies … expand the market for the imagery.

Memo from Director, CIA to Director, National Imagery and Mapping Agency (now National Geospatial – Intelligence Agency)

Central Intelligence Agency, 2002

The fundamental goal of U.S. commercial remote sensing space policy is to advance and protect U.S. national security and foreign policy interests by maintaining the nation's leadership in remote sensing space activities, and by sustaining and enhancing the U.S. remote sensing industry. Doing so will also foster economic growth, contribute to environmental stewardship, and enable scientific and technological excellence. In support of this goal, the U.S. Government will: Rely to the maximum practical extent on U.S. commercial remote sensing space capabilities for filling imagery and geospatial needs for military, intelligence, foreign policy, homeland security, and civil users;

White House

"Commercial Remote Sensing Space Policy”, May, 2003

The roles and responsibilities of decision-makers must evolve if we are to leverage geospatial information and tools to our best advantage. This entails building and maintaining different relationships and enabling new and creative ways to do business. To accomplish this:

The role of government should shift from implementer to facilitator/enabler and role model, allowing agencies to become more flexible and responsive.

Different relationships should be established, both horizontally across functions and vertically across levels of government and the private sector, to ensure that resources are used most effectively.

The committee concluded that to respond to a world in which data and technology are evolving more rapidly that the institutions that use them, a new model for development and use of geospatial information by the transportation system is needed...The actions necessary to make widespread use of geospatial data in a systematic way could be achieved through a focused alliance and collaboration among public, private, and academic communities. A key is in recognizing that the role of federal agencies is to enable state and local agencies and the private sector to carry out their missions. A practical role, rather than to mandate data requirements, would be to solicit data from data owners and providers and to encourage data sharing among agencies, users, and decision makers.

The past decade has shown that it is impractical for federal and state transportation agencies to collect, maintain, and develop comprehensive geospatial data sets to support broad decision-making activities. A more viable approach appears to be to encourage agencies -- public or private -- that are closest to the source to collect and maintain data necessary for their missions and to facilitate sharing of these data while developing expertise to integrate them into broader decision-support environments."

Transportation Research Board (TRB)

"Geospatial Information Infrastructure for Transportation Organizations: Toward a Foundation for Improved Decision Making", 2004

"Historically, state DoT’s have used Federal highway money, as well as their transportation funds, to build in-house capabilities in surveying, mapping, engineering and planning … states have their own crews, equipment and capabilities that duplicate services available from private firms. States often have airplanes and cameras for mapping aerial photography, analytical stereoplotters (mapping computers), GPS satellite surveying receivers, LIDAR systems, photographic laboratories and other expensive equipment to perform services already available, from private firms. Some state DOT's even market these services outside their own agency, performing work for other state agencies, city and county government, even non-government organizations, in direct competition with the private sector.”

Reason Foundation

"Building Highways or Bureaucracies?”, 2004

Myth: MAPPS member firms profit from inefficiency, redundancy and lack of coordination through a business model of "Capture it Once, And Sell It To As Many Difference Agencies as Possible".

This charge shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how Federal contracting operates. Historically, when a government agency has contracted for mapping and geospatial data, it has done so on a "fee for service" basis. Any agency enters into a contract with a private sector firm, the firm collects and processes the data, and the data, developed to the agency’s standards and specifications, is delivered to the agency with all rights, including the right of ownership. The agency puts the data in the public domain for access and utilization by other agencies, and the general public.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found "federal agencies had not effectively implemented policies and procedures that would help them to identify and coordinate geospatial data acquisitions across the government. As a result, the agencies make duplicative investments and risk missing opportunities to jointly acquire data.” This duplication is not only from agency-to-agency, but there is government duplication of the private sector. When a government agency starts, or carries out, an activity that is already available from the private sector, is that duplication any less wasteful than when agency A duplicates agency B? Indeed, Federal agencies are required to comply with Office of Management and Budget Circular A-16, which requires that agencies, "search all sources, including the National Spatial Data Clearinghouse, to determine if existing federal, state, local or private data meets agency needs before expending funds for data collection” (emphasis added).

Myth: MAPPS now wants to charge citizens for data that has historically been free, through a new tax or user fee.

The idea of a user fee to finance government’s need for geospatial data is neither new nor original to MAPPS. The concept was suggested in a National Academy of Sciences report, Beyond Mapping: Meeting National Needs Through Enhanced Geographic Information Science(2006) and was previously proffered by the now-defunct Spatial Technologies Industry Association (STIA) and discussed in the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) more than a decade ago.

It is no secret that MAPPS has a task force that is studying the idea of a user fee to finance. Articles have been published and presentations have been made to groups throughout the community. It has been an open and inviting process. The Coalition of Geospatial Organizations (COGO), representing every major association in the field, has agreed to engage in a dialogue on the concept. MAPPS has not concluded that any proposed user fee would be assessed on data. Moreover, H.R. 1604 does not establish or assess such a fee; it only authorizes a study of the user fee concept. If one does not believe a new and more effective way to raise money for basic government framework data is needed, then one must be satisfied that nearly 20 years after President Clinton issued an Executive Order calling for a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), the nation now has robust, current, accurate, accessible, interoperable, and complete geodetic control, cadastral, orthoimagery, elevation, hydrography , administrative unit, and transportation data.

Myth: H.R. 1604 will gut the Federal mapping workforce

The legislation sets forth an important set of inherently governmental functions for Federal employees in government agencies and calls for an evaluation of the respective roles and responsibilities Federal, State, local, regional, tribal, private sector, academic, and nonprofit institutions in geospatial activities. The National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) has long advocated attention to roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders, players, and sectors in building the NSDI. Such a definition was also called for by the National Academy of Public Administration in its report, Geographic Information for the 21st Century: Building a Strategy for the Nation(1998). As detailed above, increased use of the private sector and better definition of the role of government in mapping and geospatial activities has long been recommended in government studies.

Myth: Universities only create their own cartography labs to create the campus map

Scores of universities have become "entrepreneurial” and created entities that actually market their services outside the university itself, in direct competition with the private sector. This is not a small or recent problem. University competition with private enterprise has recently been the subject of an IRS investigation and a Congressional hearing. Want proof of university competition with the private sector? Look, for example, here, here or here, to see just a sampling.

Myth: Google, Microsoft, Apple and even Amazon are making sizable investments in spatial data, therefore if you are a true believe in free market capitalism, the government doesn’t need to be involved

Ever look at the data in many of these firms’ archives or platforms? Their data source is commonly the Federal government. Congress found "there are millions of sq km of ortho imagery and terrain published to Google Earth and Maps that has been contributed to Google through partnerships with local, state, and federal programs. These include: USDA-FSA (NAIP), USGS/EROS (DOQQs, current and historical aerial imagery, historical satellite imagery, terrain), and the National Archives … the largest single source of sub-meter aerial coverage that Google has is the direct result of USGS partnerships with state, regional, and local governments for aerial collections.”

Teddy Roosevelt once said, "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

MAPPS has always been in the arena. Whether one agrees with policies MAPPS supports, such as Congressman Doug Lamborn’s legislation, the "Map It Once, Use It Many Times” Act, H.R. 1604, or not, MAPPS puts forward proposed solutions. Others fail to do so, resorting only to critiques of MAPPS and being "cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”.

Tags:  Congress  Coordination  Duplication  Geospatial  MIO-UIMT 

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