Geospatial Data:

Progress Needed on Identifying Expenditures, Building and Utilizing a Data Infrastructure, and Reducing Duplicative Efforts [Reissued March 18, 2015]

GAO-15-193: Published: Feb 12, 2015. Publicly Released: Mar 16, 2015.

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What GAO Found

Federal agencies and state governments use a variety of geospatial datasets to support their missions. For example, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Federal Emergency Management Agency used geospatial data to identify 44,000 households that were damaged and inaccessible and reported that, as a result, it was able to provide expedited assistance to area residents. Federal agencies report spending billions of dollars on geospatial investments; however, the estimates are understated because agencies do not always track geospatial investments. For example, these estimates do not include billions of dollars spent on earth-observing satellites that produce volumes of geospatial data. The Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have started an initiative to have agencies identify and report annually on geospatial-related investments as part of the fiscal year 2017 budget process.

FGDC and selected federal agencies have made progress in implementing their responsibilities for the National Spatial Data Infrastructure as outlined in OMB guidance; however, critical items remain incomplete. For example, the committee established a clearinghouse for records on geospatial data, but the clearinghouse lacks an effective search capability and performance monitoring. FGDC also initiated plans and activities for coordinating with state governments on the collection of geospatial data; however, state officials GAO contacted are generally not satisfied with the committee's efforts to coordinate with them. Among other reasons, they feel that the committee is focused on a federal perspective rather than a national one, and that state recommendations are often ignored. In addition, selected agencies have made limited progress in their own strategic planning efforts and in using the clearinghouse to register their data to ensure they do not invest in duplicative data. For example, 8 of the committee's 32 member agencies have begun to register their data on the clearinghouse, and they have registered 59 percent of the geospatial data they deemed critical. Part of the reason that agencies are not fulfilling their responsibilities is that OMB has not made it a priority to oversee these efforts. Until OMB ensures that FGDC and federal agencies fully implement their responsibilities, the vision of improving the coordination of geospatial information and reducing duplicative investments will not be fully realized.

OMB guidance calls for agencies to eliminate duplication, avoid redundant expenditures, and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the sharing and dissemination of geospatial data. However, some data are collected multiple times by federal, state, and local entities, resulting in duplication in effort and resources. A new initiative to create a national address database could potentially result in significant savings for federal, state, and local governments. However, agencies face challenges in effectively coordinating address data collection efforts, including statutory restrictions on sharing certain federal address data. Until there is effective coordination across the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, there will continue to be duplicative efforts to obtain and maintain these data at every level of government.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal government collects, maintains, and uses geospatial information—data linked to specific geographic locations—to help support varied missions, including national security and natural resources conservation. To coordinate geospatial activities, in 1994 the President issued an executive order to develop a National Spatial Data Infrastructure—a framework for coordination that includes standards, data themes, and a clearinghouse. GAO was asked to review federal and state coordination of geospatial data.

GAO's objectives 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. To do so, GAO identified federal and state uses of geospatial data; evaluated available cost data from 2013 to 2015; assessed FGDC's and selected agencies' efforts to establish the infrastructure; and analyzed federal and state datasets to identify duplication.

What GAO Recommends

GAO suggests that Congress consider assessing statutory limitations on address data to foster progress toward a national address database. GAO also recommends that OMB improve its oversight of FGDC and federal agency initiatives, and that FGDC and selected agencies fully implement initiatives. The agencies generally agreed with the recommendations and identified plans to implement them.

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

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: There has been no legislative action identified as of August 16, 2017. Addressing this action, which GAO suggested in February 2015, could increase coordination between various levels of government and reduce duplication of effort, resources, and costs associated with collecting and maintaining accurate address data.

    Matter: To increase coordination between various levels of government and reduce duplication of effort, resources, and costs associated with collecting and maintaining accurate address data, Congress should consider assessing the impact of the disclosure restrictions of Section 9 of Title 13 and Section 412 of Title 39 of the U.S. Code in moving toward a national geospatial address database. If warranted, Congress should consider revising those statutes to authorize the limited release of addresses, without any personally identifiable information, specifically for geospatial purposes. Such a change, if deemed appropriate, could potentially result in significant savings across federal, state, and local governments.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of September 7, 2017, OMB had not yet taken steps to require all federal agencies that invest in geospatial data to report on their efforts to establish and implement policies and procedures for utilizing the Geospatial Platform before making new investments in geospatial data. OMB officials in stated in December 2016 that they were in discussion with the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) on how to best address this issue, possibly in future guidance. On September 7, 2017, OMB officials stated that there have been no changes to the status of this recommendation, but that they anticipate the recommendation will be considered further once the new FGDC Steering Committee leadership and membership are in place; and the NSDI Strategic Plan actions and the potential for a new geospatial policy update are determined. However, OMB did not provide anticipated dates for these activities.

    Recommendation: To better facilitate the coordination of--and accountability for--the estimated billions of dollars in federal geospatial investments, to reduce duplication, and, specifically, to make progress toward an effective national infrastructure and to improve oversight on federal spending on geospatial data and assets, the Director of OMB should improve oversight of progress on the NSDI by requiring federal agencies to report on their efforts to establish and implement policies for identifying geospatial metadata on the Geospatial Platform and their procedures for utilizing the Marketplace feature of the Geospatial Platform before making new investments in geospatial data.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The United States Department of Agriculture (Agriculture) issued a departmental regulation in August 2016 covering enterprise geospatial data management. The regulation applies to all Agriculture agencies, organizations and contractors. It requires that all geospatial metadata approved for external public access will be published and maintained on the National Spatial Data Clearinghouse, which is currently hosted on the Geospatial Platform maintained by the Federal Geographic Data Committee. Agriculture has implemented the regulation. Specifically, it has published the geospatial metadata for five new datasets since August 2016.

    Recommendation: To better facilitate the coordination of--and accountability for--the estimated billions of dollars in federal geospatial investments, to reduce duplication, and to help ensure the success of departmental efforts to improve geospatial coordination and reduce duplication, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the designated senior agency official for geospatial information to establish a schedule for developing and implementing a policy that requires the department to make its geospatial metadata available on the Geospatial Platform.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The United States Department of Agriculture (Agriculture) issued a departmental regulation in August 2016 covering enterprise geospatial data management. The regulation applies to all Agriculture agencies, organizations and contractors, and addresses all geospatial authoritative data sources. It states that all Agriculture agencies and staff offices will follow documented procedures approved by the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) to conduct a formal search of the Geospatial Marketplace prior to expending funds for geospatial data acquisitions. However, Agriculture has yet to provide the OCIO-approved documented procedures, or evidence of their implementation. According to an Agriculture official in July 2017, the new procedures are under review, and they hope to have implemented them by the end of December 2017.

    Recommendation: To better facilitate the coordination of--and accountability for--the estimated billions of dollars in federal geospatial investments, to reduce duplication, and to help ensure the success of departmental efforts to improve geospatial coordination and reduce duplication, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the designated senior agency official for geospatial information to develop and implement internal procedures to ensure that it accesses the Geospatial Platform Marketplace 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security issued Instruction 034-01-001 on March 23, 2016, to establish procedures for identifying and acquiring unclassified geospatial information. The instruction applies throughout the department to all components that expend funds to collect and produce geospatial information. The instruction requires that the department's Geospatial Management Official coordinate the publication of unclassified geospatial information on the federal Geospatial Platform to facilitate the publicly accessible search and discovery of the information. The instruction has been posted to the department's intranet, and is referenced in the department's guidance on information technology acquisitions. Moreover, the department has implemented this policy. For example, the department updated the metadata associated with its national flood hazard data on the Geospatial Platform in May 2016. In addition, the department provided evidence showing that it contributed funds towards datasets that were created by another department, and for which the metadata were posted on the Geospatial Platform.

    Recommendation: To better facilitate the coordination of--and accountability for--the estimated billions of dollars in federal geospatial investments, to reduce duplication, and to help ensure the success of departmental efforts to improve geospatial coordination and reduce duplication, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the designated senior agency official for geospatial information to establish a schedule for developing and implementing a policy that requires the department to make its geospatial metadata available on the Geospatial Platform.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security issued Instruction 034-01-001 on March 23, 2016, to establish procedures for identifying and acquiring unclassified geospatial information. The instruction applies throughout the department to all components that expend funds to collect and product geospatial information. The instruction requires that the components' chief information officers, geospatial officials, contracting officials, or other designated officials search the Geospatial Platform Marketplace to determine if existing data is available to meet their programming requirements, or if another agency has plans to acquire the same data. DHS components are to document the search to include the data, catalog(s) searched, the search criteria, and the results of the search. When discovering that another organization has the data, or has plans to acquire the data, the officials are to work with the department's Geospatial Management Officer to coordinate with these organizations. The instruction has been posted to the department's intranet, and is referenced in the department's guidance on information technology acquisitions. Moreover, the department has implemented this policy. For example, the department demonstrated that the procedures for accessing the Geospatial Platform Marketplace prior to acquiring new data are being followed. Specifically, in October 2016 the department provided evidence showing that its officials had searched the Marketplace for datasets associated with flooding from a recent hurricane prior to reaching out to another federal agency to obtain its datasets. In addition, the department also provided evidence showing that it contributed funding towards datasets that are planned for collection by another department, the metadata for which are posted on the Geospatial Platform Marketplace.

    Recommendation: To better facilitate the coordination of--and accountability for--the estimated billions of dollars in federal geospatial investments, to reduce duplication, and to help ensure the success of departmental efforts to improve geospatial coordination and reduce duplication, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the designated senior agency official for geospatial information to develop and implement internal procedures to ensure that it accesses the Geospatial Platform Marketplace 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2016, Interior deployed a new search application to the Geospatial Platform. GAO independently tested the new search application and found that Interior corrected the problems previously identified. In addition, Interior provided evidence that it is overseeing the effectiveness of the search function on a regular and ongoing basis. Specifically, Interior provided copies of help desk logs that show that the Geospatial Platform team support staff continually monitors the effectiveness of the search function through the assessment of problems identified by users. In January 2017, Interior provided evidence showing that, since the new search application was deployed, they have received only one report regarding problems with the search application, and that was determined to be a service outage of the web service, not a problem with the search application itself. As a result, effective coordination and use of geospatial information is more likely to be realized and duplicative investments are less likely to occur.

    Recommendation: To better facilitate the coordination of--and accountability for--the estimated billions of dollars in federal geospatial investments, and to reduce duplication the Secretary of the Interior, as the FGDC Chair, should direct the FGDC Steering Committee to correct the search function of the Geospatial Platform so that it effectively identifies applicable datasets, and oversee the effectiveness of the search function on a regular and ongoing basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2016, Interior's Geospatial Platform service desk staff began collecting usage data on a variety of topics. The data collected included, among other things, the number of users, the number of sessions, the average duration of the sessions, and the average number of pages per session. In addition, this information is provided on a regular basis to the FGDC Steering Committee for its oversight and recommendations. As a result, the committee is likely to realize improved coordination and use of geospatial information, and to more effectively use its resources.

    Recommendation: To better facilitate the coordination of--and accountability for--the estimated billions of dollars in federal geospatial investments, and to reduce duplication the Secretary of the Interior, as the FGDC Chair, should direct the FGDC Steering Committee to establish a schedule for collecting performance measures for the Geospatial Platform and report on these measures during Steering Committee meetings.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The FGDC approved the creation of a National Geospatial Data Asset address theme in August 2016, as GAO recommended in February 2015. The Department of Transportation (Transportation) and the U.S. Census Bureau (Census Bureau) are the theme leads. Transportation and Census Bureau, as subcommittee co-chairs, formed the FGDC address subcommittee with participants from other federal agencies, states, and private organizations. The first meeting of the subcommittee was held in December 2016. The subcommittee met in January 2017, and it subsequently approved a formal description of the theme in February 2017. The definition of the theme was added to the FGDC website in March 2017, and Transportation and Census Bureau were added to the lists of National Geospatial Data Asset theme leads and theme executive champions.

    Recommendation: To better facilitate the coordination of--and accountability for--the estimated billions of dollars in federal geospatial investments, and to reduce duplication the Secretary of the Interior, as the FGDC Chair, should direct the FGDC Steering Committee to create an address data theme with associated subcommittees and working groups to assist in furthering a national address database.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The FGDC has reassessed the "Imagery for the Nation" initiative and has identified steps to improve the management of imagery data. Specifically, the FGDC directed the National Digital Orthoimagery Program (NDOP) to reassess the feasibility of a national imagery initiative program, similar to an effort that was attempted in 2004 and halted in 2011. As a result, NDOP members met in May and June 2015 to assess existing programs, funding availability, new technology, and industry trends to determine what steps might be taken to enhance national imagery acquisition efforts to benefit governments at all levels. An NDOP official presented the findings to the FGDC in September 2015. The findings were that a national imagery program is still important, technically feasible, and would be cost beneficial. However, the NDOP members concluded that such a program is unlikely to succeed due to the lack of (1) a mandate to require an agency to develop it, (2) sufficient federal funding in today's fiscal climate, and (3) an executive champion to push for the program. In December 2015, a FGDC official told GAO that, after consideration of the findings, the FGDC Executive Committee determined that the best way to pursue imagery data is through the recently created National Geospatial Data Asset (NGDA) imagery theme, instead of as a separate national data initiative, as was tried before. According to this official, the NGDA imagery theme is in the process of developing a strategic plan, addressing changes in how imagery is being used to meet mission requirements, and evaluating how to leverage existing expertise in aerial and satellite technologies.

    Recommendation: To better facilitate the coordination of--and accountability for--the estimated billions of dollars in federal geospatial investments, and to reduce duplication the Secretary of the Interior, as the FGDC Chair, should direct the FGDC Steering Committee to direct the National Digital Orthoimagery Program to reassess the feasibility of the "Imagery for the Nation" initiative, with the goal of identifying discrete steps that could be taken to further a national imagery program benefitting governments at all levels.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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