House hearing calls for stronger federal role in geospatial efforts

Lawmakers take the Obama administration to task for paying insufficient attention to federal geospatial policy.

House members and hearing witnesses alike today took the Obama administration to task for paying insufficient heed to the need to develop a coordinated federal policy for geospatial information.

At the hearing held Thursday morning by the House Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) criticized the Office of Management and Budget for failing to appear. Noting that the OMB is a key agency for coordinating federal efforts in geospatial data collection, Lamborn criticized the agency for not sending a representative to testify. "I am certain that their testimony on this issue would be particularly enlightening," said Lamborn. "OMB must have decided that the issue was not important enough to participate in this hearing."

GCN has asked the OMB for comment, but has not received a response.

Witnesses at the hearing also said existing federal geospatial efforts are falling short of the mark. According to Michael Byrne, geospatial information officer for the state of California, the current federal approach to geospatial data does not have sufficient mandate and is not well integrated with state and local efforts.

Noting that the main federal effort for coordinating geospatial data — the National Spatial Data Infrastructure — is managed by the Interior Department, Byrne said, "Governance of the NSDI at the national level needs to be elevated above the department of the Interior.” He added, "When governance is housed in one department, it tends to — by nature — focus on the business needs of that department."

Some witnesses complained that the current federal efforts have resulted in both a "stovepiping" of geospatial data and potentially costly duplication of efforts.

"Unfortunately, we have not made the progress that we should have in making the NSDI a reality," said John Palatiello, executive director of the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors, a trade association. "We don't have a national geospatial strategy in this country. We have extremely well-built, impenetrable stovepipes in the federal government, and efforts to break them down and share data across those stovepipes simply are not occurring."

Palatiello also warned of expensive duplication of efforts resulting from the lack of coordination. He cited a current initiative to map broadband Internet availability, noting the Census Bureau already collected much of that information. "The taxpayers have already paid for that geospatial data and yet it's not being shared," he said. "So we're going to spend part of $350 million to go an collect it once again."

"We are not tying our geospatial activities to national priorities," Palatiello said. "There are neither carrots nor sticks ... to enforce the standards or to ensure coordination."

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Mon, Jul 27, 2009

Census does not map the availability of broadband internet infrastructure. Seeing them free up the address point locations from the overly restrictive Title 13 laws would be helpful for many initiatives, but would not solve the problem of mapping high speed internet access. For that, you'd need the private sector vendors to actually release data about which customer populations they server, and they will fight tooth and nail not to have to do that. Palatiello is just trying to get Agency programs unfunded and dismantled so that the private sector firms he represents can try to suck up all funding to "privatize" all mapping operations. They will do half of what federal staff would be able to do for the same price, as they are much more highly paid. If 8 years of the Bush administration's consistent efforts to completely gut the USGS and other national mapping programs, we would not be the current terrible state as far as an NSDI goes.

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