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Information technology > 11. Geospatial Investments

Better coordination among federal agencies that collect, maintain, and use geospatial information could help reduce duplication of geospatial investments and provide the opportunity for potential savings of millions of dollars.

Why This Area Is Important

The federal government collects, maintains, and uses geospatial information—information linked to specific geographic locations[1]—to help in decision making and to support many functions, including national security, law enforcement, health care, and environmental protection. Many activities, such as maintaining roads and responding to natural disasters—floods, hurricanes, and fires—can depend on critical analysis of geospatial information. Further, multiple federal agencies may provide services at the same geographic locations and may independently collect similar geospatial information about those locations.

In June 2004, GAO reported that selected agencies’ efforts to coordinate geospatial investments were not successful and agencies were independently acquiring and maintaining duplicative and costly geospatial data and systems.[2] GAO recommended that the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Secretary of the Interior (Interior) improve strategic planning, and that OMB develop criteria for assessing interagency coordination of proposed geospatial investments and increase its oversight of approved geospatial projects.[3] OMB and Interior generally agreed with these recommendations. From 2004 through 2008, OMB and Interior created a number of strategic planning documents to encourage more coordination of geospatial assets, reduce needless redundancies, and decrease costs. In 2004 and 2006, OMB issued guidance to increase the amount of budget information available on geospatial investments and improve oversight of agencies’ implementation of geospatial-related policies and activities. Nonetheless, in August 2012, Interior estimated that the federal government invests billions of dollars in geospatial data annually and reported that duplication among investments is common.[4]



[1]For example, entities such as houses, rivers, road intersections, power plants, and national parks can all be identified by their location. In addition, phenomena such as wildfires, the spread of the West Nile virus, and the thinning of trees because of acid rain can also be identified by their geographic locations.

[2]The agencies reviewed were the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce (Commerce), the Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

[3]The Secretary of the Interior chairs the committee established by OMB to promote the coordination of geospatial data nationwide.

[4]Interior included this estimate as a part of its exhibit 300 submission to OMB; see Department of the Interior, Geospatial Line of Business Capital Asset Summary,
Aug. 14, 2012.

What GAO Found

In November 2012, GAO reported that the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC)—the committee that was established to promote the coordination of geospatial data nationwide—and selected federal departments and agencies had not effectively implemented policies and procedures for coordinating geospatial data as called for by executive order and OMB guidance.[1] Additionally, federal agencies continue to make duplicative investments in areas of national interest, such as road and address data.

Specifically, the FGDC is responsible for coordinating the development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI)—an infrastructure that includes data themes, standards, metadata, and a centralized clearinghouse for geospatial metadata.[2] The purpose of the NSDI is to facilitate the efficient collection, sharing, and dissemination of geospatial data, and to reduce wasteful duplication among all levels of government and the public and private sectors. GAO reported that the FGDC had developed and endorsed key standards, and established a clearinghouse of metadata—a centralized repository of metadata records. The clearinghouse allows users to determine whether the geospatial data that they are seeking already exist and to identify planned acquisitions of geospatial data and opportunities to jointly acquire the data in order to help reduce duplication. GAO reported that the three federal departments in its review (Commerce, Interior, and Transportation) had described their existing geospatial data on the clearinghouse by making their metadata available on it. However, as of September 2012, federal agencies were not using the clearinghouse to identify planned acquisitions of geospatial data because the FGDC had not developed guidance for agencies that describes how to use the Geospatial Platform—the primary portal to access and search the clearinghouse—to identify planned geospatial investments. Without the ability to identify planned geospatial data acquisitions, agencies will likely miss opportunities to cooperatively acquire the data, thus resulting in the acquisition of potentially duplicative data.

OMB guidance directed the FGDC to provide guidance to federal agencies by November 2011 about how to implement portfolio management—an approach in which agencies manage geospatial data as related groups of investments, both within and across federal agencies—to allow them to more effectively plan geospatial data collection efforts and minimize duplicative investments. However, while the FGDC initiated activities that FGDC officials said were first needed for agencies to establish a portfolio of geospatial data, it had not yet planned for or implemented a portfolio management approach. FGDC officials stated that they had developed a draft plan containing guidance to agencies in November 2011, but as of November 2012, the plan had not been finalized or approved, and officials were unable to provide a time frame for doing so.

Additionally, as GAO reported in November 2012, none of the three federal departments in its review had fully implemented important activities identified in federal guidance for coordinating geospatial data and assets, as shown in the following table.[3]

Status of Federal Departments’ Implementation of Geospatial Activities, November 2012

Activity

Commerce

Interior

Transportation

Designate a senior official with departmentwide responsibility for geospatial information issues

Prepare and implement a strategy for advancing geospatial data activities appropriate to the mission

Develop a policy to make metadata available on the clearinghouse

Make the department’s metadata available on the clearinghouse

Adopt procedures for accessing the clearinghouse before expending funds to collect or produce new data

Source: GAO analysis of department documentation.

Legend

= Fully met—the department provided evidence that addressed the criteria

= Partially met—the department provided evidence that addressed about half or a large portion of the criteria

= Not met—the department did not provide evidence that addressed the criteria or provided evidence that minimally addressed the criteria

Further, the three agencies in GAO’s review responsible for government-wide management of specific geospatial data—NOAA, USGS, and BTS—had implemented some but not all important activities identified in federal guidance to ensure the national coverage and stewardship of geospatial data themes, as shown in the following table.[4] For example, only one of the agencies had fully prepared or implemented a plan for the nationwide population of the data theme that included (1) the development of partnership programs with states, tribes, academia, the private sector, other federal agencies, and localities that meet the needs of users; (2) human and financial resource needs; (3) standards, metadata, and the clearinghouse needs; and (4) a timetable for the development for the theme.

Status of Agencies’ Implementation of Geospatial Activities, November 2012

Activity

NOAA

USGS

BTS

Designate a point of contact responsible for the development, maintenance, and dissemination of theme-related data

Prepare goals and analyze user needs in support of the NSDI strategy

Develop and implement a plan for the nationwide population of the data theme

Create a plan to develop and implement theme standards

Source: GAO analysis of agency documentation.

Legend

● = Fully met—the agency provided evidence that addressed the criteria

◐ = Partially met—the agency provided evidence that addressed about half or a large portion of the criteria

○ = Not met—the agency did not provide evidence that addressed the criteria or provided evidence that minimally addressed the criteria

Moreover, while OMB has oversight responsibilities for investments in geospatial data, OMB staff members acknowledged that OMB does not have complete and reliable information to identify potentially duplicative geospatial investments. According to these officials, this is largely because agencies do not appropriately and consistently classify geospatial investments in their budget documents submitted to OMB.

Finally, recent reports, as well as officials from state and local associations and the National Geospatial Advisory Committee, have all stated that duplicative geospatial data investments continue across all levels of government.[5] For example, according to Transportation’sTransportation for the Nation Strategic Plan, dated May 2011, duplication exists in the acquisition of nationwide road centerline data across federal agencies and other levels of government, resulting in millions of wasted taxpayer dollars.[6] In addition, according to a National Geospatial Advisory Committee official, several federal agencies collect, purchase, or lease address information in an uncoordinated fashion. Further, in a report on land parcel data, the National Academy of Sciences stated that the lack of nationally integrated land parcel data has led to duplication of effort among various levels of government and between the public and private sector.[7] Moreover, representatives from an organization composed of state geospatial data managers stated that federal agencies are investing in geospatial data that exist at the state and local levels, noting that duplicative data continue to be procured in such areas as imagery, elevation, road centerlines, and address points. Improved coordination between agencies may help to reduce duplicative investments.

FGDC, federal departments and agencies, and OMB had not yet fully implemented established policies and procedures for coordinating geospatial investments because these efforts had not been a priority. Until the FGDC, federal departments and agencies, and OMB decide that investments in geospatial information are a priority; FGDC and federal departments and agencies effectively implement the policies, procedures, and plans to coordinate their geospatial activities; and OMB obtains reliable information about federal geospatial investments, investments will remain uncoordinated, and federal agencies will likely continue to acquire duplicative geospatial information and waste taxpayer dollars.



[1]A total of 31 federal departments and agencies collect, maintain, and use geospatial information, but we limited our review to three departments and three related agencies: Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Interior and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS); and the Department of Transportation (Transportation) and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). OMB, Circular No. A-16, Coordination of Geographic Information and Related Spatial Data Activities, Aug. 19, 2002; M-11-03, Issuance of OMB Circular A-16 Supplemental Guidance, Nov. 10, 2010; and Executive Order No. 12906, Coordinating Geographic Data Acquisition and Access: The National Spatial Data Infrastructure,59 Fed. Reg. 17,671 (Apr. 11, 1994).

[2]Data themes are composed of one or more sets of geospatial data that have national significance, as established by federal guidance, such as hydrography (i.e., surface water features such as lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers). Metadata are information about data such as content, source, accuracy, method of collection, and point of contact.

[3]OMB, Circular No. A-16, Coordination of Geographic Information and Related Spatial Data Activities, Aug. 19, 2002; OMB, M-06-07, Designation of a Senior Agency Official for Geospatial Information, Mar. 3, 2006; and Executive Order No. 12906, Coordinating Geographic Data Acquisition and Access: The National Spatial Data Infrastructure,59 Fed. Reg. 17,671 (Apr. 11, 1994).

[4]OMB, Circular No. A-16, Coordination of Geographic Information and Related Spatial Data Activities, Aug. 19, 2002.

[5]The National Geospatial Advisory Committee was established to provide the FGDC with advice and recommendations related to the implementation of established federal policies and the management of geospatial information.

[6]U.S. Department of Transportation, Transportation for the Nation Strategic Plan,
May 2011.

[7]National Academy of Sciences, National Land Parcel Data: A Vision for the Future, 2007. Founded by congressional charter, the National Academy of the Sciences is a private, nonprofit organization that serves as advisers to the nation on issues of science and technology that frequently affect policy decisions.

Actions Needed

GAO recommended in November 2012 that the Secretary of the Interior, as the FGDC Chair, direct the FGDC Steering Committee to take the following two actions:

  • establish a time frame for completing a plan to facilitate the implementation of OMB’s November 2010 management guidance, and develop and implement the plan within the established time frame; and

  • develop and implement guidance for identifying planned geospatial investments in the Geospatial Platform.

In addition, GAO recommended that the Secretaries of Commerce, the Interior, and Transportation implement relevant executive order requirements and OMB guidance, including implementing, of the following seven actions, those that apply to their departments and agencies:

  • designate a senior agency official with departmentwide accountability, uthority, and responsibility for geospatial information issues;

  • prepare, maintain, publish, and implement a strategy for advancing geographic information and related geospatial data activities appropriate to its mission;

  • develop a policy that requires the department to make its geospatial metadata available on the clearinghouse;

  • develop and implement internal procedures to ensure that the department accesses the NSDI clearinghouse before it expends funds to collect or produce new geospatial data to determine (1) whether the information has already been collected by others and (2) whether cooperative efforts to obtain the data are possible;

  • prepare goals relating to all datasets within the relevant theme that support the NSDI;

  • develop and implement a plan for the nationwide population of the relevant theme that addresses all datasets within the theme and that includes (1) the development of partnership programs with states, tribes, academia, the private sector, other federal agencies, and localities that meet the needs of users; (2) human and financial resource needs; (3) standards, metadata, and the clearinghouse needs; and (4) a timetable for the development for the theme; and

  • create and implement a plan to develop and implement relevant theme standards.

Further, GAO recommended that the Director of OMB take the following action:

  • develop a mechanism, or modify existing mechanisms, to identify and report annually on all geospatial-related investments, including dollars invested and the nature of the investment.

Because neither federal agencies nor OMB captures cost information in a uniform manner, determining precise costs in this area is not feasible. Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, Interior has recently estimated that the federal government invests billions of dollars in geospatial data annually and that duplication among investments is common. As a result, better coordination by agencies and better oversight by OMB could help to reduce duplication of geospatial investments, providing the opportunity for potential savings on the estimated billions of dollars spent annually on geospatial information technology.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the products in the related GAO products section. GAO looked at government-wide activities to implement the NSDI, as well as efforts of the FGDC. To evaluate federal departments’ efforts to implement the NSDI, GAO first identified the nine framework themes, as identified in Circular A-16.[1] From those nine themes, GAO then randomly selected three themes and identified the federal departments and agencies responsible for managing the themes. The three departments, theme-lead agencies, and selected themes are: Commerce—NOAA—geodetic control; Interior—USGS—hydrography; and Transportation—BTS—transportation. GAO reviewed and assessed FGDC and department documentation such as policies, procedures, strategic plans, meeting minutes, and budget documentation; OMB budget guidance and reports; and recent reports discussing duplicative geospatial investments; and interviewed FGDC and department officials and OMB staff members.



[1]OMB, Circular No. A-16, Coordination of Geographic Information and Related Spatial Data Activities, Aug. 19, 2002, identifies nine themes as critical for many geospatial applications.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the November 2012 report on which this analysis is based, the Departments of Commerce and the Interior generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations and described actions planned and under way to implement them. Transportation neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations. However, Transportation officials commented that the department’s Transportation for the Nation Strategic Plan partially satisfied the requirement to implement a strategy for advancing geospatial data within the department, noting that the strategic plan addresses the collection and maintenance of road centerline data, which represent the vast majority of travel in terms of both passengers and freight. However, GAO’s analysis is that the strategic plan does not include a strategy for advancing all the department’s geographic information and related geospatial data activities, describe how the department and its agencies are to coordinate their geospatial efforts to support the department’s mission, or address geospatial themes other than transportation in which department officials stated that the department makes investments. Therefore, the department’s Transportation for the Nation Strategic Plan does not constitute a departmentwide geospatial plan. Thus, the recommendation to develop such a strategy remains relevant to the department. OMB stated that it concurred with the need for improved collection of geospatial-related investments, but suggested that GAO clarify the recommendation to acknowledge that a new process is not required or expected. GAO agreed and clarified the recommendation.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to OMB and the Departments of Commerce, the Interior, and Transportation for review and comment. OMB commented that GAO’s review of the three agencies was helpful and that it illustrated the need for increased participation in federal-wide geospatial capabilities and the elimination of duplicative capabilities and spending. OMB also noted that, in response to GAO’s recommendation, in 2012 it developed new analysis tools and updated its models to improve its ability to identify and report on geospatial-related investments. Interior’s comments provided additional information on the status of steps being taken to address recommendations to both the FGDC and the department. For example, Interior noted that an updated capability for all federal departments and agencies to identify planned geospatial data investments using the FGDC’s Geospatial Platform is currently under development and is targeted for deployment during fiscal year 2013. Interior also noted that it will be developing new internal geospatial policies, procedures, and plans, such as preparing, maintaining, publishing, and implementing a strategy for advancing geographic information and related geospatial activities appropriate to its mission. The Departments of Commerce and Transportation did not provide comments on this report section. Transportation reported that the Secretary had recently designated a senior agency official with departmentwide accountability, authority, and responsibility for geospatial information issues.

For additional information about this area, contact David A. Powner at (202) 512-9286, or pownerd@gao.gov.

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