Checking in with NGAC and the National Spatial Data Infrastructure

Satellite data, January 1, 2014. Photo courtesy of NCDC/NOAA.

Satellite data, January 1, 2014. Photo courtesy of NCDC/NOAA.

Several times a year I attend meetings of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee, a federal advisory committee that reports to the chair of the Federal Geographic Data Committee. The NGAC pulls together participants from across academia, the private sector and all levels of government to advise the Federal government on geospatial policy and ways to advance the vision of a National Spatial Data Infrastructure. They held two days of meetings in DC on March 17 and 18, 2015 and I was happy to have the opportunity to attend.

We originally got involved with the group when two members of the GeoMAPP project team (Zsolt Nagy and Dennis Goreham) were named founding NGAC members (PDF) and we’ve kept up with it because of the wealth of information that comes out of the meetings about national geospatial policy initiatives.

The group’s membership changes over time, but in the past has included Jack Dangermond, the founder of Esri, and currently includes both Michael Jones of Google (one of the inventors of Google Earth) and Steve Coast, the founder of OpenStreetMap.

Julie Sweetkind-Singer, the Assistant Director of Geospatial, Cartographic and Scientific Data & Services at Stanford University libraries and a former principal investigator on the NDIIPP National Geospatial Digital Archive project, is now the Vice Chair of the group.

As usual, the committee covered a number of topic areas that have ramifications for the library, archive and museum digital stewardship communities.

FGDC Report/GAO Report

A chief area of discussion in the FGDC’s report to the attendees was the March 16 release of the Government Accountability Office report “Geospatial Data: Progress Needed on Identifying Expenditures, Building and Utilizing a Data Infrastructure, and Reducing Duplicative Efforts.” This is the second GAO report in the past 3 years on geospatial information, with the first, “Geospatial Information: OMB and Agencies Need to Make Coordination a Priority to Reduce Duplication,” having been released on November 26, 2012.

GAO’s objectives with the report were to

(1) describe the geospatial data that selected federal agencies and states use and how much is spent on geospatial data; (2) assess progress in establishing the National Spatial Data Infrastructure; and (3) determine whether selected federal agencies and states invest in duplicative geospatial data.

The report urged Congressional input towards a national addressing database, while also recommending that the Office of Management and Budget and associated federal agencies fully implement national spatial data infrastructure activities.

Crowd-Sourced Geospatial Data

Next came an interesting presentation on the concepts of crowd-sourced data, citizen science and volunteered geographic information, as well as crowd-sourced data initiatives happening inside the Federal government. It featured Sophia Liu, a Mendenhall Postdoc Fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey; Denice Ross, a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the Department of Energy; and Sean Gorman from Timbr.io.

Key questions that crossed each of the presentations included the challenges with integrating crowd-sourced data with agency-originated data while validating its integrity, as well as potential legal consequences when agencies rely on crowd-sourced data for action. One suggested way to address the validity question is to incorporate a “human-in-the-loop” to vet, edit or “massage” crowd-sourced data to ensure its accuracy and usability. See http://radar.oreilly.com/2015/02/human-in-the-loop-machine-learning.html for further info.

There was also a bit of discussion on the difference between “ambient” crowd-sourced data (think traffic data compiled from the location reports of cell phones) and volunteered geographic information such as that found in citizen-mapping initiatives such as OpenStreetMap.

Geospatial Privacy Subcommittee Report

The Geospatial Privacy Subcommittee of the NGAC is largely exploring the privacy challenges presented by Unmanned Aircraft Systems and as such is somewhat out of our purview. An important recent document on this front is “Presidential Memorandum: Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems” released on Feb. 15, 2015.

COGO Report card

Geospatial: application by user dleithinger on Flickr

Geospatial: application by user dleithinger on Flickr

COGO is the Coalition of Geospatial Organizations, a grouping of private sector geospatial organizations such as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS), Association of American Geographers (AAG), National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) and a number of others.

On February 16, 2015 they published their first “Report Card on the U.S. National Spatial Data Infrastructure” (PDF). The report was written by an expert panel led by former Wyoming governor James E. Geringer (who presented the findings at the meeting). The focus of the initial report card is on the status of the seven FGDC “framework” data layers and how they are being maintained and accentuated to meet the needs of a national spatial data infrastructure. As the report says, “by evaluating the Federal government’s efforts to lead and coordinate the creation and maintenance of these data, this report reflects on how well the NSDI is meeting its goals.” According to COGO the student is not doing too well.

There was ample discussion on whether COGO was measuring the right thing (is it a measure of what’s actually getting done in a somewhat hostile budgetary environment, or are agencies being measured against an abstract standard of what should be done based on the original goals of the NSDI?) and whether this report could do more harm than good for acquiring future resources across the federal geospatial community.

During the discussion on the report it was noted that the 2016 President’s budget includes an increase of nearly $150 million for the USGS, including “an increase of $11 million for the USGS to support the community resilience toolkit, which is a web-based clearinghouse of data, tools, shared applications, and best practices for resource managers, decision-makers, and the public,” so at least there’s recognition that work does need to get done.

Geospatial Data Act of 2015

Finally, not on the meeting agenda but hanging over all the discussions was the “Geospatial Data Act of 2015,” introduced by Senators Hatch and Warner on March 16, 2015, the day prior to the start of the meeting. The text of the legislation is at https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/740/text, and my initial reading (note: I am not a lawyer!) is that it codifies in law things that are attempting to be implemented in current practice. Several important items in the proposed bill:

  • Each covered agency shall include geospatial data as a capital asset for purposes of preparing the budget submission of the President.
  • Each covered agency shall disclose each contract, cooperative agreement, grant or other transaction that deals with geospatial data on USAspending.gov.
  • Greater OMB oversight, and a limitation on receiving future funds for data that does not conform to FGDC standards.

The next NGAC meeting is June 9-10, 2015. As always, they are open to the public.

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