Government users face hurdles on remote sensing

State and local governments have new opportunities to use remote sensing data, thanks to recent technological developments, according to a study released last month by a committee of the National Research Council. And many of the hurdles they face in using this data are not technological, the study said.

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.

As an example of the benefits of remote sensing, the committee cited Richland County, S.C., which used light detection and ranging 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.

Added benefits

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 that it did not have updated maps. As an added benefit, the maps could be used for community planning and other purposes.

As an example of the potential pitfalls of buying remote sensing data, the committee noted that four agencies in one state had purchased 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. The study is available at


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