Geospatial Data Act will bring huge changes to America, and the world

November 14, 2018  - By
Photo: Chanachaiviriyakul

Photo: Chanachaiviriyakul

“The benefits of geospatial technology are truly untold. However, when our federal agencies use geospatial data, different agencies can acquire duplicative information and waste precious taxpayer resources in the process. I am glad House leadership listened to industry stakeholders and included the Geospatial Data Act in the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2018. This will streamline the collection of this data across the federal government while saving money, improving information accuracy, and providing a more modern system for collecting and sharing geospatial data.”

— Rep. Bruce Westerman, Arizona, introducing the Geospatial Data Act to the House of Representatives, 115th Congress

On Oct. 3, I was at a crowded after-hours event with friends in Washington, D.C., standing in a darkened corner of the room where I could both see and hear the speaker. A man approached me, a featureless silhouette in the dark tapping me on the shoulder. He introduced himself as an employee of the U.S. Geological Survey, and said he heard I was with the Federal Aviation Administration.

He asked if I knew anything about the FAA Reauthorization Bill because it had language from the Geospatial Data Act in it. His mention was the first I had heard of it. It came as a surprise. I expected a few passages from the Bill but nothing more; and, in fact, I did not expect it to even come up for a vote this year because of the divisive political atmosphere.

Two days later, on Friday, Oct. 5, President Donald Trump, along with 11 high ranking officials, signed the FAA Reauthorization Bill into law with overwhelming support. The Senate passed it 93-6, and the House passed it 398-23. The bipartisanship of this bill should have made the news – both sides of the contentious isles coming together to pass so important a piece of legislation. It happened without fanfare or recognition aside from certain circles, but within H.R. 302 was contained the entire Geospatial Data Act 2018.

An email from the Maryland State Geographic Information Committee (MSGIC) alerted me. Not even the FAA sent an email praising the aspects of the bill beyond what immediately applied to the FAA. If the stranger from USGS had not forewarned me I would not have been keen to the press release and overlooked its significance.

Most people are unaware that the Geospatial Data Act (GDA) is now law. Even fewer realize that the GDA applies not only to the FAA, but to all government agencies except for the Department of Defense and the intelligence community.

The Long and Winding Road of the Geospatial Data Act

Attempts at creating a unifying federal geospatial policy can be traced to shortly after the Civil War. There was no powerful, central, national unifying authority before then. The states were sovereign entities with their own maps, and place names did not have to be agreed upon between states.

This is visible today in the names of Civil War battles, many of which are named differently by each warring side; for example, the bloody Battle of Antietam is the same as the Battle of Sharpsburg, and the Battle of Bull Run is the same as the Battle of Manassas. Upon those hallowed grounds so many died that the dual names exist because they were paid for in blood.

War drives the need for intelligence. Geography is of paramount importance for generals. The 1860s was a boom time for surveyors and cartographers because of the Civil War and the American Indian Wars.

Additionally, in the 1860s Alaska was purchased from Russia and America built the first transcontinental railroad. Those geopolitical events changed the country, and the government needed to inventory the emerging nation.

Many companies were employed to do the work, but they were not coordinated, costing excess amounts of money. This prompted the establishment of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 1879 to oversee the survey companies.

Roosevelt on a digging machine during construction of the Panama Canal, circa 1908. (Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Roosevelt on a digging machine during construction of the Panama Canal, circa 1908. (Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Problems were identified among the many maps created. Place names and spelling changed from map to map. The country needed a coordinated effort to deal with these discrepancies. President Benjamin Harrison addressed this with Executive Order 28 (27-A) in 1890, establishing the Board of Geographic Names.

In 1906, during the middle of building the Panama Canal, President Theodore Roosevelt — who had direct experience with survey and mapping companies — signed Executive Order 493 renaming the Board of Geographic Names to the U.S. Geographic Board and adding to its purpose reducing duplicative survey and mapping efforts.

In 1956 the National Interstate and Defense Highways Bill was signed, beginning the interstate network we enjoy today. Building the interstates was a huge expense, and like before, many survey companies were involved. Anticipating these challenges in 1953 President Eisenhower, the Office of Management and Budget wrote Circular A-16, which identified better coordination acquiring geographic information and reducing duplicate efforts as ways to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

In 1990 during the months leading up to Gulf War I, which showed geospatial precision’s awesome power and forever changed the face of war, also brought changes to OMB Circular A-16 for more domestic purposes. The circular was revised, reflecting the influence of the digital era and establishing the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) to promote the coordination of geospatial data.

Recognizing the importance of geospatial information systems (GIS), on April 11, 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12906: Coordinating Geographic Data Acquisition and Access: The National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The executive branch continued to lead the government’s efforts to advance a unified geospatial policy.

When 9/11 Happened

Seven years later, in June 2001, Congress attempted to pass its first federal geospatial policy, but Sept. 11 changed everything. The greatest terrorist attack in U.S. history made everything else pale by comparison. National security and intelligence became the focus.

Congress tried again in 2003, the same year the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) changed its name to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), but Gulf War II and the Global War on Terrorism stole center stage.

In 2005, Congress tried again, but to no avail. The bill changed names several times. The contents evolved. Attempts to introduce the bill went dormant until 2012 when it stalled again without support. Proponents continued reintroducing the bill under various names in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

In 2015 it made a second debut with the name Geospatial Data Act (GDA) and maintained that name going forward. The GDA was reintroduced in 2016, twice in 2017 and again in 2018. In total, the bill was introduced more than a dozen times since 2001. Finally, 139 years since the founding of USGS, a federal geospatial policy is now the law of the land.

You Have an Opportunity

“This legislation will significantly address how location intelligence is organized and disseminated and will foster continued strength in our industry’s partnership with government users.”
— Jack Dangermond, Esri founder and CEO

It takes courageous leadership to get legislation passed. We can all breathe a sigh of relief. This great “tech-tonic” shift happened during our working lives. We can all say we were there when the world changed. This is a golden opportunity. Knowledge is power; however, knowledge is only potential power — real power is action. Step up, volunteer, and lead the change. Your agency needs you. The country needs you. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

Your first step is to read the Geospatial Data Act 2018 contained within the FAA Reauthorization Act, Title VII, Subtitle F: Geospatial Data, Sections 751-759. Become familiar with the GDA. Learn who the points of contact are for your agency. Make yourself known. Be a leader. When others see chaos, leaders see opportunity.

Economic Impact of the Geospatial Data Act 2018

“The economic benefits of smart infrastructure investment are long-term competitiveness, productivity, innovation, lower prices, and higher incomes, while infrastructure investment also creates many thousands of American jobs in the near-term.”
White House, National Economic Council and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, July 2014

Since Roger Tomlinson first created a geographic information system in the 1960s, GIS has become a multi-billion dollar global industry. By 2020, it is forecast to be nearly a half-trillion dollars annually. The global GIS market is expected to double in seven years.

GeoBuiz estimates that GIS influences 20 percent the world’s entire $80.7 trillion global annual production. According to the Countries Geospatial Readiness Index, the United States leads the world in GIS. What is amazing is that all these estimates were made prior to the passage of the GDA — the gale force winds that have thus far blown will soon become a hurricane.

The sweet spot of opportunity is the forward edge of a growing industry. In the mid-90, the growth of the geospatial industry was led by state and local government (See GeoIntelligence Insider: In Jack Maple’s Steps – Fighting Crime with GIS, May 2018). In the mid-2000s, growth accelerated due to the intelligence and military communities. The next big boom in GIS begins now as the federal government complies with the GDA. There will be an even longer growth trend internationally as other countries make their own conversions.

It is a common adage that forecasts usually overestimate the near term and underestimate the long-term, especially in regard to technology. Consider how one man’s idea to sell books online in 1995 made him the wealthiest man in the world 23 years later, or how a simple search engine in 1998 is now a global behemoth. Of course, those references are to Jeff Bezos of Amazon and to Google.

And, consider the impact GPS has made since May 1, 2000, when President Clinton discontinued Selective Availability, opening GPS to the masses. Four years later, in June 2005, Google Earth was launched. The iPhone came out two years later. Then, a year later, Google Maps with real-time navigation was released.

Businesses like Uber that depend on GPS and GIS began in 2012. Now, industries such as drones and autonomous vehicles are on the verge of exponential growth.

Apply a similar trajectory to GIS and combine it with smart technologies like the internet of things (IoT), open data, data science, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and other emerging technologies and the growth potential is unprecedented, not to mention the infrastructure rebuild of America about to take place.

An Economic Analysis of Transportation Infrastructure Investment - White House, July 2014, National Economic Council and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. (Image:

An Economic Analysis of Transportation Infrastructure Investment – White House, July 2014, National Economic Council and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. (Image:

Smart technologies will play a huge role in rebuilding the United States infrastructure like sensors, advanced materials, self-aware neural networks, IoT devices, energy recapture systems, smart lighting, and more; many such technologies will be connected geospatially.

This will require an advanced 3D Smart Grid Reference System (3D SGRS), a term I coined in 2015 when I worked at the Department of Transportation and began developing a crowdsource application for the National Address Database. I saw it becoming the framework for a 3D SGRS, enabling pinpoint accuracy of locations in X-Y-Z.

I can cover the 3D SGRS in a future article. I write about it here because it will be required in order to modernize America’s infrastructure.

Before passing any infrastructure bills, it is necessary to have a sound geospatial policy to avoid the misspending identified by the previous administrations mentioned earlier. The GDA, in essence, is the first step to modernize America. A brief overview of proposals sitting before Congress is an indicator of the economic tsunami about to be unleashed now that the GDA has been established.

Legislation has been introduced for establishing infrastructure bonds and banks for investing in infrastructure projects. Individual bills are for railroads, land, air, and sea ports; intermodal freight transfer stations, highways, critical infrastructure, rural development and stormwater systems, including water retention ponds and reservoirs that make up a large part of city and suburban green space. There are bills to fund pollution prevention programs.

Infrastructure cybersecurity is also addressed. There are bills for job creation, including employing disabled veterans in transportation. There is even a bill for proclaiming a National Infrastructure Week.

Once these legislative efforts begin getting passed, a tsunami of economic growth will be released unlike few alive have ever seen.

The Geospatial Data Act – A Matter of Necessity

“The Geospatial Data Act will save taxpayer dollars, increase government efficiency, and unlock innovation in the public and private sectors.”
— Congressman Seth Moulton, Massachusetts, co-signer of the Geospatial Data Act to the House of Representatives, 115th Congress

Rebuilding America is one of the boldest, grandest and costliest undertakings the country has seen. Being one of the costliest, one has to ask where the money is going to come from.

The GDA will create entrepreneurs, new products and services, and job growth, which will generate revenue. Many infrastructure-related bills have tax incentives built into them. Money will come from the economic restructuring of trade deals currently taking place with many of the United States’ trading partners. Money will also come from America’s oil and gas renaissance.

Outline of the Geospatial Data Act 2018

This article put the Geospatial Data Act into context, but it would not be complete if it did not at least outline the major provisions of the new law.

These are the primary tenets of the GDA:

  • It establishes the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC)
  • It establishes the National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC)
  • It establishes the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI)
  • It establishes the National Spatial Data Asset data themes (NSDI-dt)
  • It establishes GeoPlatform as the clearinghouse for geospatial data
  • It sets Geospatial Data Standards.

Senator Orrin Hatch, who introduced the bill to the Senate four times since 2015, called it, “…a good-governance bill that will bring structure and Congressional oversight to federal geospatial data spending, accounting, and usage. The GDA will:

  • Dramatically reduce duplicative spending and, according to the Government Accountability Office, save the federal government billions of dollars;
  • Bolster federal emergency response capabilities by enabling smarter, more efficient disaster relief;
  • Improve infrastructure planning nationwide by providing state and local governments with access to higher-quality, more robust data.

The bill is supported by over 65 universities, industry groups, trade associations, companies, and state and local stakeholders, including the National Association of Counties and National League of Cities.”

Some of the stakeholders Sen. Hatch referred to are Bert Granberg, president of the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC), who stated, “From transportation, to natural resources, to homeland security, map-based digital information has quietly become mission critical to how work gets done and to future economic growth. We need an efficiency and accountability framework to build, sustain and share geographic data assets for the entire nation. The GDA delivers just that, and our members appreciate Representative Westerman’s leadership.”

Molly Schar, executive director of NSGIC, shared her thoughts, saying, “The Geospatial Data Act has been a top legislative priority for NSGIC for several years. We have worked with state governments, Congressional offices, federal agencies, and many other stakeholder groups committed to building more resilient communities by ensuring they will have access to the consistent high-quality data they need to do their jobs,”

And, after the bill’s passage she proclaimed, “It was a big win for the entire geospatial community and quite a team effort!”

For more information

This report has given you the background and the context of the Geospatial Data Act. To become intimately familiar with the GDA, I highly recommend reading the Congressional Research Service Report about GDA 2018, released Oct. 22.

Also, it also goes without saying, you should read the GDA 2018 contained within the FAA Reauthorization Bill, Title VII, Section F, paragraphs 751 – 759.

10 Comments on "Geospatial Data Act will bring huge changes to America, and the world"

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  1. R. Peter DeLong says:

    Great Article! I’d like to read a subsequent article explaining more specifically the ways it will change the way the government does business.

    • Mr. DeLong,

      Indeed, that story has yet to be told, but it is necessary for other evolutions of technology to follow. One of them will be written about in an upcoming article regarding Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Scientists. I hope you’ll read and comment there as well.

      Thank you,

  2. Alberto Carsenzuola says:

    Great Article, Thanks.
    I wonder if this project could run on same path of the GDA.

    Best Regards

    • Thank you for reading and replying Roberto.
      Yes, to your comment. INSPIRE by the European Union appears to be very similar to the Geospatial Data Act in the United States. The world is really at that point where something in one place needs agreeable standards in another no matter how small it seems because everything is interconnected.

      Thank you,

  3. Alex Irving says:

    SA was discontinued from May 2000.

  4. Thank you Alex,

    I’ll see if I can’t make that correction.