Congressional Research Service Update to Federal GIS Report

The Congressional Research Service has published an update to one of their GIS reports:

Issues and Challenges for Federal Geospatial Information (R41826)

by Pete Folger, Specialist in Energy and Natural Resources Policy, April 27, 2012


Congress has recognized the challenge of coordinating and sharing geospatial data from the local, county, and state level to the national level, and vice versa. The cost to the federal government of gathering and coordinating geospatial information has also been an ongoing concern. As much as 80% of government information has a geospatial component, according to various sources. The federal government’s role has changed from being a primary provider of authoritative geospatial information to coordinating and managing geospatial data and facilitating partnerships. Congress explored issues of cost, duplication of effort, and coordination of geospatial information in hearings during the 108th Congress. However, challenges to coordinating how geospatial data are acquired and used—collecting duplicative data sets, for example—at the local, state, and federal levels, in collaboration with the private sector, are not yet resolved. Two bills introduced in the 112th Congress, H.R. 1620 and H.R. 4322, would address aspects of duplication and coordination of geospatial information.

The federal government has recognized the need to organize and coordinate the collection and management of geospatial data since at least 1990, when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) revised Circular A-16 to establish the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) and to promote the coordinated use, sharing, and dissemination of geospatial data nationwide. OMB Circular A-16 also called for development of a national digital spatial information resource to enable the sharing and transfer of spatial data between users and producers, linked by criteria and standards. Executive Order 12906, issued in 1994, strengthened and enhanced Circular A-16, and specified that FGDC shall coordinate development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). On November 10, 2010, OMB issued supplemental guidance to Circular A-16 that labels geospatial data as a “capital asset,” and refers to its acquisition and management in terms analogous to financial assets to be managed as a National Geospatial Data Asset Portfolio. It will likely take some time, and several budget cycles, to track whether agencies are adhering to the “portfolio-centric model” of geospatial data management outlined in the supplemental guidance. The 112th Congress may examine its oversight role in the implementation of OMB Circular A-16, particularly in how federal agencies are coordinating their programs that have geospatial assets.

 The high-level leadership and broad membership of the FGDC—10 cabinet-level departments and 9 other federal agencies—highlights the importance of geospatial information to the federal government. Questions remain, however, about how effectively the FGDC is fulfilling its mission. Has this organizational structure worked? Can the federal government account for the costs of acquiring, coordinating, and managing geospatial information? How well is the federal government coordinating with the state and local entities that have an increasing stake in geospatial information? What is the role of the private sector?

 State-level geospatial entities, through the National State Geographic Information Council, also embrace the need for better coordination. However, the states are sensitive to possible federal encroachment on their prerogatives to customize NSDI to meet the needs of the states.

 In early 2009, several proposals were released calling for efforts to create a national Geospatial Information System (GIS). Language in the proposals attempted to make the case for considering such efforts part of the national investment in critical infrastructure. Congress may consider how a national GIS or geospatial infrastructure would be conceived, perhaps drawing on proposals for these national efforts and how they would be similar to or differ from current efforts.


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