State and local governments hampered on remote sensing

State and local governments face hurdles on remote sensing

Recent developments have created new opportunities for state and local governments to use remote sensing data. Many of the hurdles they face in using this data are nontechnological, according to a study released earlier this month by a committee of the National Research Council.

A critical issue, the committee found, is that remote sensing is often not perceived as a must-have technology. Its financial and operational benefits must be sold to decision-makers, especially with many state and local governments facing fiscal problems. This usually requires a strong advocate, sometimes an elected official but most often a government employee.

As an example of the benefits of remote sensing, the committee cited Richland County, S.C., which used light detection and ranging (lidar) data to supply land contour information overnight to a company that wanted to build a plant in the county. Using surveyors would have taken 45 to 90 days, the report said, and cost an additional $140,000.

The committee also cited North Carolina, which is updating flood insurance maps. A cost-benefit analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey said the state would gain $3.35 for each dollar spent on the program, and lose $57 million each year it did not have updated maps. As an added benefit, the new maps could be used for community planning and other purposes.

The committee noted that four agencies in one state had bought the same remote sensing image. Central management of remote sensing data, and regional cooperatives to purchase and use data, could avoid these inefficiencies, the study said.

Licensing restrictions need to be addressed if governments want to share remote sensing data, the study said. The committee also said it is unclear whether the public, under freedom of information laws, can access data from commercial vendors.

Procurement and budget rules should be studied carefully before buying remote sensing data, the committee recommended. "Expenditures for remote sensing data are likely to occur unevenly within and across fiscal years," the study found. Another budget issue is whether the purchase of remote sensing data is considered a capital or operating expense.

The committee identified some technical matters to consider:

  • having adequate technical staff

  • the lack of standards for digital spatial data

  • the fact that the federal government uses the metric system but many state and local governments use the English system.

  • "Using Remote Sensing in State and Local Government: Information for Management and Decision-Making" is posted at


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