NASA Still Falls Short of Geospatial Data Act Compliance, Watchdog Says

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The agency’s inspector general found that while NASA is making progress towards compliance, six out of 13 key elements are incomplete.

NASA has only complied with about half of its key geospatial responsibilities, according to a government watchdog; however, the agency has made progress since the previous audit report.

The Office of Inspector General for NASA issued a report on Wednesday examining the agency’s compliance with the Geospatial Data Act of 2018, which aims to “foster efficient, governmentwide management of geospatial data—information identifying the geographic location and characteristics of natural or constructed features and boundaries on Earth.” The act formalizes processes for geospatial data governance in addition to providing policy and guidelines for using geospatial data and technology as well as collaboration between the public and private sectors. 

OIG stated that NASA and its partnered satellite missions and research provide publicly available geospatial data. NASA uses such data in a variety of ways, according to the watchdog, such as mapping years of ice sheet loss. 

Agencies are required to follow standards established by the Federal Geographic Data Committee as well as adhere to other data reporting and sharing requirements.  

As part of a government wide effort for the fiscal year 2022 geospatial audit, NASA’s OIG examined the agency’s progress toward compliance with the 13 responsibilities listed in Section 759(a) of the act, because geospatial standards have yet to be established in addition to NASA implementing the watchdog’s previous recommendations in its 2020 audit. 

According to OIG, NASA’s responsibilities are to:

  1. Prepare and implement a strategy for advancing geospatial data activities appropriate to the agency’s mission.
  2. Collect, maintain, disseminate and preserve geospatial data such that resulting data, information, or products can be shared.
  3. Promote geospatial data integration.
  4. Ensure that geospatial information is included on agency records schedules that have been approved by the National Archives and Records Administration.
  5. Allocate resources to fulfill geospatial data responsibilities. 
  6. Use geospatial data and metadata standards. 
  7. Coordinate with other federal agencies; state, local and tribal governments; institutions of higher education; and the private sector. 
  8. Make federal geospatial information more useful to the public, enhance operations, support decision making, and enhance reporting to the public and to Congress. 
  9. Protect personal privacy and maintain confidentiality in accordance with federal policy and law. 
  10. Participate in determining whether declassified data can become part of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure. 
  11. Search all sources to determine if existing data meet the needs of the covered agency before expending funds to acquire geospatial data. 
  12. Ensure that those receiving federal funds for geospatial data collection provide high-quality data. 
  13. Appoint a contact to coordinate with other lead-covered agencies.

OIG found that while NASA is making progress to comply with the act, six out of 13 key components are not complete.

Specifically, while NASA has made progress to implement some of the 13 agency responsibilities since the last report, such as creating a geospatial data strategy, it has not completed its implementation plan for this strategy—which the watchdog also found to be missing key activities to meet agency responsibilities. According to OIG, the agency’s plan did not fully define NASA officials’ roles and responsibilities for geospatial data management as required under the act. OIG also found that the plan did not include crucial elements like creating a complete and accurate geospatial data inventory. As a result, OIG’s 2020 recommendation to “develop a unified Strategy Implementation Plan or ‘Roadmap’ that defines detailed action items, milestones and responsibilities for geospatial data management in support of missions across NASA” still stands.

NASA has not created a complete and accurate inventory of its geospatial data assets as required by the act, according to the watchdog. OIG noted that most geospatial data is processed by its Earth Science Division, but “some geospatial data is not related to Earth science and is not cataloged in the repository,” thus there is no central, exhaustive list of the agency’s geospatial data, because NASA does not have a fully implemented process to identify and catalog it. OIG noted that fulfilling this requirement will rely on the Enterprise Data Platform and NASA’s data stewardship program, however, both need to be mature to be fully utilized. OIG added that the lack of a complete and accurate geospatial data inventory hinders NASA’s ability to meet three other responsibilities defined in the act, namely responsibilities 3, 5 and 8. 

The watchdog added that NASA has also faced challenges to establish National Archives and Records Administration-approved record retention schedules for its geospatial data. In particular, because NASA possesses geospatial data dating back to the 1960s, OIG previously recommended that the agencies enter into an affiliated archive agreement, which the records agency was hesitant to do. The watchdog noted that there is “some ambiguity concerning which levels of scientific data should be included” in NARA-approved records schedules. However, OIG stated that because of the significance of NASA’s observations, NASA and NARA should work together to “determine an acceptable path forward to meet the intent of the GDA.”

OIG made four recommendations for NASA to improve its compliance with the act.

The watchdog recommended that the agency’s Chief Information Officer, in coordination with the associate administrator for Science Mission Directorate and the assistant administrator for strategic infrastructure, should:

  • Position the senior agency official for geospatial information’s role within NASA to have the necessary responsibility, accountability and authority to meet GDA-assigned responsibilities.
  • Define the roles and responsibilities of the SAOGI and other critical stakeholders in NASA’s Geospatial Data Strategy and implementation plan.
  • Have the Geospatial Data Strategy’s implementation plan contain detailed action items and milestones, such as those to establish a complete and accurate inventory for NASA’s geospatial data.
  • Coordinate with NARA to decide the appropriate level of scientific data to include in the records schedules.

NASA concurred with OIG’s recommendations and described planned actions to address them, according to the watchdog. As a result, OIG considers the management’s comments responsive and marked the recommendations as resolved. The recommendations will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed actions. 

NASA stated it would reassess the SAOGI’s organizational assignment and designation to ensure compliance, and it will update the roles and responsibilities as noted by FGDC. It will also implement a plan for the Enterprise Data Catalog, including prioritizing a complete inventory of its geospatial data. Additionally, NASA will work with NARA on a records retention schedule. 

The agency estimated it would complete the recommendations between June 2023 and September 2024.