Op-Ed: Unlocking the Economic Potential of Geospatial Data

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Agency IT leaders need to make room on the Federal Geospatial Platform for those who most need the data: users.

Most people recognize the pervasive impact of geospatial technology even if they are not familiar with the terms. Location sensors are prevalent in cars, phones, and even inhalers.  On a daily basis, constellations of satellites provide updated images of the natural and manmade events that fill Earth’s surface.

Government investments in geospatial data have become a major boon to our economy and our lives. The benefits of GPS and Census data are widely known, but fewer people are aware of the impact of the National Broadband Map, for example, which is guiding nearly $1 billion in investment to expand access to high-speed Internet across the country.

As the industry matures and evolves, it’s critical for government to adapt its thinking about the growth of geospatial data and its value.  Federal overseers often are concerned with cost and duplication. Those are necessary considerations, but I suggest they are a small component in a larger discussion about the future of the geospatial industry. Generating three substantially similar data sets may seem duplicative, but that redundancy is potentially inconsequential when compared to the business value each could represent for its stated purpose. Creating a business framework for agencies to manage investments, quantify outcomes and make data and tools accessible to users should be the primary focus. The principles of the marketplace should apply.

One initiative with the ability to lead change is the Federal Geospatial Platform, which aims to make geospatial data, applications, services and infrastructure more readily accessible to government users as well as the public. Here are four considerations to maximize its potential:

First, engage users to drive the data. Consider that 80,000 of the 85,000-plus records on data.gov are tagged as geospatial. But the current platform is difficult to search and mine. Much of the coordination takes place among government IT leadership, yet users from government, academia and the private sector are the ultimate consumers. Metadata standards and integration are important, but why not create an API to see what users do with it? While platform managers are establishing communities to engage stakeholders, they would do a better job of incorporating user needs by bringing customers into the existing governance structure.

Second, use the platform to establish new partnerships. The Platform should be a collaboration space that helps agencies learn from each other, implement open standards and promote interoperability. Similar to the framework established by private developers in GitHub, the Platform is embracing open communities to share code to build applications faster. However, A-16 geospatial theme owners should revisit the business models unique to their theme and look for ways to engage the private sector or crowd to collaboratively build data sets. The existing marketplace should facilitate the unique partnerships and transactions of each theme.

Third, mandate place-based performance metrics. One way to encourage and catalog investment is to create incentives to use the data to develop and report on shared, place-based outcomes. There are Federal examples of shared local outcomes, such as the HUD/EPA/DOT sustainable communities initiative, but more can be accomplished. A shared mapping framework would enable agencies to better visualize the impact of their national priorities and programs, such as grants and rule-making, at a local scale.

Last, support agencies in their efforts to be more strategic in promoting geospatial activities. The Government Accountability Office recently reiterated that agencies lack a strategy and roadmap for geospatial activities. A better approach would be for IT leaders to develop an enterprise strategy focused on the mission, not the software, supported by a robust internal governance structure that engages users who can identify opportunities for shared investment. The evolution of GIS as a web-based platform allows agencies to take advantage of the shared geospatial resources promoted by the platform to quickly deliver maps and apps without a major IT investment.    

The New York Times recently wrote, “What came first, conquered by Google’s superior search algorithms. Who was next, and Facebook was the victor. But where, arguably the biggest prize of all, has yet to be completely won.” The platform represents great promise as a tool to promote collaboration, innovation and user engagement with public data. That promise needs to become reality.

Matt Gentile is a principal at Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLP. The views expressed here are his own.

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