Information Sharing

GAO calls for better management of geospatial data

Soil Map from GeoPlatform.gov

This map, taken from the Federal Geographic Data Committee's GeoPlatform.gov, combines USDA Soil Survey Geographic data with a hydro reference layer. More efforts to coordinate and consolidate government geospatial data are needed, a GAO report found.

Three federal agencies tasked with government-wide management of specific geospatial data are wasting millions of taxpayer dollars annually in duplicative efforts, according to a report released Nov.26 by the Government and Accountability Office.

The report criticized the Interior, Commerce and Transportation Departments for not effectively implementing policies and procedures for coordinating investments in geospatial data because "these efforts have not been a priority."

The report recommends these agencies -- as well as the Office of Management and Budget, which has oversight responsibilities on geospatial data, and the Federal Geographic Data Committee, established to promote coordination of geospatial data nationwide -- improve coordination and accountability while reducing duplication.

"If you read the policies in place, it appears geospatial data should be a priority," said David Powner, director of IT management issues for GAO. "But the actions of leading agencies -- when we asked them why there wasn't more progress made, they said there were other priorities they were working on. It appears geospatial data was not a major priority."

But, it should be, Powner said, and not only because the federal government invests billions in geospatial data each year.

"Geospatial data is tied to weather forecasting and prediction, national security information, protecting critical infrastructure -- this data is very important," Powner said.

The report suggests agencies implement performance goals regarding its clearinghouse of metadata -- the National Spatial Data Infrastructure -- and the report highlights dubious duplicative efforts among agencies acquiring geospatial data.

In one case, three agencies were independently compiling road data, "which is reported to have resulted in millions of wasted taxpayers' dollars," the report states. "Unless OMB, the FGDC, and federal departments and agencies decide that coordinating geospatial investments is a priority, this situation will likely continue."

Two agencies, Interior and Commerce, agreed with the report's findings and recommendations. (Comments from Transportation officials were not included in the published report.)

"We plan to take steps to fully implement all of the recommendations," said Rebecca Blank, Acting Secretary of Commerce, in a written response to the report.

Rob Shields, a senior enterprise architect for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said in a Nov. 29 interview that federal agencies need to have insight into what other agencies are doing with regards to geospatial data to avoid duplicative scenarios. The NGA, an agency under the Department of Defense, provides geospatial information for military, civil and international needs. It was not included in the GAO report.

Don Shaw, NGA's enterprise architecture chief, suggested potential changes in the acquisitions stage of how federal agencies gather geospatial data. In the outlined case of three federal agencies paying for the same road data, Shaw said, changes in contractual language could force vendors and contractors to disclose if a federal project might be duplicative if they are aware of it.

To improve oversight of geospatial information, the GAO report calls for OMB to develop a mechanism, "or modify existing mechanisms, to identify and report annually on all geospatial related investments," including costs and nature of investments. There is no timeline on the recommendations, however.

"We issued a report in 2004 with several recommendations, and we're making similar recommendations eight years later," Powner said. "It's really going to be up to leadership at OMB and other key agencies to have a lead role."

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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