The Geospatial Data Act of 2017

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On May 25, 2017, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced the bi-partisan Senate Bill 1253, better known as the Geospatial Data Act of 2017. In bi-partisan fashion, the bill has sparked praise and outrage from geospatial technologists. Interestingly, however, the Geospatial Data Act has been in the works for several years. Hatch and Warner introduced the bill under the same name to the Senate in 2015 and to the Senate and House (by Bruce Westerman (R-AR-4)) in 2016. Each attempt, however, failed. So why have so many geospatial folks taken an interest in the 2017 bill?

According to Hatch, the goals of the bill are to save taxpayer dollars on how it collects geospatial data, to “provide the tools to create a more robust and modern system of maps and digital data with a budget that avoids redundant expenditures,” and to “optimize the method in which we collect geospatial data to advance the technology for states, counties, and citizens around the nation.” Warner added:

“Geospatial data has enormous applications in transforming both the private and public sectors—supporting apps, innovative tools, and activities as wide-ranging as emergency preparedness to finding a restaurant. Today, the federal government is the largest purchaser of geospatial data, but the federal government’s collection and utilization of this data has been undermined by duplication and a lack of transparency. This bill would bring greater accountability to the federal government’s use of geospatial data, and ensure that taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently.”

Supporters of the bill, including Bert Granburg, President of the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC), argued that the Geospatial Data Act will bring “an efficiency and accountability framework to build, sustain, and share geographic data assets for the entire nation.” Other supporters include the National Association of Counties, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, the National States Geographic Information Council. Among other things, the bill also provides a “clear definition for geospatial data and metadata.”

The American Association of Geographers (AAG) published its stance on the bill soon after its release. The AAG piece, however, does not sing praise for cutting costs and for streamlining the collection and accessibility of publicly available geospatial data. Rather, the AAG, as well as several other geospatial oriented groups like URISA, believe that the bill would not only:

“…limit competition, innovation and free-market approaches for a crucial high-growth information technology (IT) sector of the U.S. economy, it also would cripple the current vibrant GIS industry and damage U.S. geographic information science, research capacity, and competitiveness. The proposed bill would also shackle government agencies, all of which depend upon the productivity, talent, scientific and technical skills, and the creativity and innovation that characterize the vast majority of the existing GIS and mapping workforce.”

This belief relates directly to what was added to the 2017 version of the bill in “Sec. 11. Use of the Private Sector,” which was not in the 2015 bill at all, added in the 2016 bill, and heavily edited in the 2017 bill. Basically, the addition would require all GIS IT agencies that contract with the government to be qualified/certified based on stipulations laid out in the Brooks Act, passed in 1972, which is its own beast with ears.

It already seems that in its current form, SB 1253 is dead, unless it is significantly revised. There is some worry that this bill could be piggybacked on an approved bill during a late-night session, so there is some need for distress. The Coalition for American Heritage released its opinion of the bill, commenting that there is “no cause for concern.” But one always has to wonder…

As with anything political, I hope that readers click on the hyperlinked text to read the original versions. That way, there are new, informed opinions. And just for grins, when you do read it, select your favorite emoji that characterizes your opinion of the Geospatial Data Act of 2017.

Other positions on SB 1253 can be found here, here, and here. Here, too.

Dr. Jeffrey Widener is the Geospatial Information Systems Librarian at OU Libraries.

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