Geospatial Contractors Cynically Attempt to Take Over US Federal Mapping

by Brian Timoney

The party is over.

During the 1990s anything related to IT was expensive and fat profit margins were easily procured. Post-9/11 was very good for geospatial contracting with both the escalation of defense spending to support three wars as well as the mushrooming requirements of the Department of Homeland Security. But now sequestration–and its impacts on the DoD in particular–are the unmistakable sign that a golden era of contracting has drawn to a close.

But over the last decade another geospatial industry sprung up–the one we’re all familiar with: Internet-based, massive high-performance platforms taking full advantage of the plunging costs of computing to elevate mapping to its current status as a core component of the everyday web experience.

After a couple of decades of easy living, what would you do when confronted with the prospect of competing against lower-margin, faster-paced innovation?

You wouldn’t settle for half-measures, that’s for sure.  No, you too would get your lobbying group MAPPS busy helping draft something like H.R. 1604 “Map It Once, Use It Many Times”: a private sector takeover of Federal mapping activities in the United States.


US Federal Geospatial Has Always Been A Mess

No one is disputing that the problem isn’t large.  The government’s watchdog arm–the GAO–has consistently identified the same problem, over and over:

For decades, the federal government has tried to reduce duplicative geospatial data collection by coordinating GIS activities within and outside the federal government.

June 2, 2003

But measures such as better implementation of FGDC standards and NSDI initiatives such as Geospatial One-Stop were going to fix all of that.  How did that work out?

We found that federal agencies had not effectively implemented policies and procedures that would help them to identify and coordinate geospatial data acquisitions across the government. As a result, the agencies make duplicative investments and risk missing opportunities to jointly acquire data.

April, 2013

So MAPPS comes along with this “Map It Once, Use It Many Times.”  We should all be on our feet cheering, right? Because the narrative is so easy to buy into:

Lumbering, ineffective government bureaucracies wasting tax-payer money for decades in desperate need of the efficiency-creating skills of the private sector.

It’s a great story.

Except for one glaring, very inconvenient fact.

MAPPS Members Made Hundreds of Millions of Dollars From All of That Inefficiency, Redundancy, and Lack of Coordination

Somehow the fairy tale MAPPS is trying to sell omits the small detail that much of what their legislation claims to fix were essential features of a business model that was very, very lucrative for its members. Because where did the billions go, actually? Are there hordes of retired Park Service cartographers and USGS geodesists kicking back on their yachts in La Jolla that I don’t know about?

“Map It Once, Use It Many Times”?  After decades of the contractor game of “Capture it Once, And Sell It To As Many Different Agencies as Possible”?

So MAPPS members fancy themselves the solution to the problems that just so happened to have made them a lot of money over the years?

Got it.

Let’s dig into the details of the legislation to more fully appreciate the nobility of our White Knight Geospatial Saviors.

All Your Mapping Belongs to Us

Acronyms.  We need more acronyms.

The first order of business is to establish that National Geospatial Technology Administration (NGTA) within the US Geological Survey.  As part of the NGTA we are also establishing a National Geospatial Policy Commission (Sec 201).  The National Geospatial Policy Commission will be tasked with creating a National Geospatial Data Plan.  Of course, a National Geospatial Database will also be created (Sec 103) that will house the predictable stuff: cadastral, orthoimagery, elevation and bathymetry, etc., etc.  Additionally, other data “useful in carrying out national priorities”–healthcare, broadband, home mortgages, emergency response, and a bunch more–will be included.

What agencies’ geospatial functions will be completely taken over by the NGTA?

How about all of the geospatial functions that reside in the Department of Interior (BIA, BLM, NPS, USFWS, USGS), USDA (including Forest Service), and NOAA.

That’s a lot.

Now how might this National Geospatial Database be funded? Section 103 e(2) suggests “user fees” will be considered.  Since a vast quantity of geospatial data generated by the agencies listed above is provided free to the public, discussion of “user fees” is crazy talk, right?

Not in the MAPPS universe. These folks have openly described the attractiveness of user fees–taxes!–with respect to the use of geospatial data.

So a possible result of all of this efficiency and cost savings is that the public will end up paying for data that now is free…

The Gutting of the Federal Mapping Workforce

    (a) Conversion of Activities Identified by Commission- Each agency head shall convert, to the maximum extent possible, to performance by private geospatial firms, all activities identified by the National Geospatial Policy Commission for conversion under section 202(b)(2) that are performed by or for the agency.

We’ve seen this movie before.

In 1998 President Clinton signed the Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act that called for streamlining government by using the private sector to provide services more cheaply than government employees whenever possible.

Fifteen years in, what does the data say?

The net cost to the tax payer of a contractor is twice as much as a federal employee.

And we get to throw out institutional memory and trample what’s left of the rich mapping traditions of the USGS, NPS, etc. in the bargain.

An Industry in Desperate Need of Government Encouragement

    (a) Development of Strategy- Not later than one year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Administrator shall cooperate with private geospatial firms, and any associations composed exclusively of such firms, to develop a comprehensive strategy to encourage and enhance the use of private geospatial firms by Federal agencies and other entities that receive Federal funds, including State and local governmental agencies, universities, nonprofit organizations, and foreign governments.

It’s not enough that the private sector take over Federal mapping activities in toto–now anyone who receives government dollars will be “encouraged” to use private geospatial contractors. Because heaven forbid a university that receives Federal funds use its own cartography lab to create the campus map when there is a private firm at the ready.


But all in the name of free enterprise, of course.

      Hey, look: Private Sector investment in Spatial Data Infrastructure

Yet the Free Market is Massively Investing in Spatial Data Infrastructure

You would never know from reading MAPPS press releases that right now, in 2013, in the United States of America, some notable companies are making sizable investments in spatial data: Google, Microsoft, Apple, and even Amazon.

National Spatial Data Infrastructure?  That would be Google to the average citizen.

Isn’t this the joy of capitalism writ large?  Private companies risking private capital to invest millions in mapping and create a massive consumer surplus that gives joy every time you turn on your smartphone?

What MAPPS intentionally confuses is their pro-business stance with the principles of free markets.  Because as Luis Zingales so memorably puts it, “true capitalism lacks a strong lobby“.


If You’re Part of the Problem, Perhaps You Should Have a Lesser Role in the Solution

No one disputes that government IT and its procurement systems are broken.  But the solutions put forth by H.R. 1604 simply aren’t credible given the two decades-long track record of heavy contractor involvement in federal geospatial activities.  Recent innovative projects the FCC and National Park Service offer glimpses of the alternative paths available when agencies don’t reflexively cede control of their projects to outside vendors. Because frankly, the technology is the easy part: it’s the anthropology–the organizational culture–that’s difficult. For far too long the upper management at these agencies has rubber-stamped increasingly cumbersome technology from private contractors seemingly optimized to create and perpetuate prolonged organizational dependency.

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Admittedly, whinging at the mendacity of a lobbying group does have a rather pronounced tilting-at-windmills feel to it.  If MAPPS is vigorously representing the interests of their members, so be it, right?  But what this proposed legislation makes abundantly clear is that these members–Sanborn, ESRI, Hexagon, et al–have such a dispiriting, narrow vision of their future: utterly backwards looking; taxpayer-be-damned, Federal-employee-be-damned.

What remains unclear is if this baldly retrograde expression of self-interest will be countered with anything other than servile, silent assent by the industry at large.

—Brian Timoney


Times Square photo courtesy of   Tasayu Tasnaphun’s Flickr stream
Stealing donuts photo courtesy of   whatmattdoes’ Flickr stream
Dirty quarters photo courtesy of   .sanden.’s Flickr stream
Old map photo courtesy of   iwouldificould’s Flickr stream
GeoEye rocket photo courtesy of   misterbisson’s Flickr stream