Bill Johnson, Carpe Geo Evangelist, AppGeo
There are lots of things I love about this stage of my career in the private sector, but occasionally I think about my prior role in the public sector and wonder what choices I would make if I were still a state GIO today.
Case in point: I was previously responsible for a statewide imagery program that started nearly 20 years ago. It was (and remains) a program based on a custom collection contract, what the lawyers call “work for hire”, meaning that a contractor produces the imagery according to the contract specifications and delivers it to the state for acceptance and payment, with the state owning the deliverables in full. This is the tried and true model that until a few years ago was how virtually all orthoimagery was acquired by state GIS offices. I’m skipping over the states that have relied on the USDA NAIP program, perhaps by cost-sharing or funding upgrades, but NAIP is simply a larger-scale example of a work-for-hire contract.
What we’re seeing now is a rise in acceptance of imagery content programs by states. I’m aware of at least ten states that have made the switch. And it’s not hard to understand why; the cost savings over a custom collection contract are dramatic. The trade-off to achieve those savings is that the imagery company retains ownership of the data and grants usage rights under the terms of a license. The impact of this, as I wrote about in a previous blog post, is that imagery purchased by a government agency under a content program cannot be freely released into the public domain1. To be clear, the agency can make the data available for everyone, including the commercial sector, to use in public-facing maps and apps as a base map, for display, for analysis; but not for download or to create derivative commercial products. That said, the inability to freely release government-funded data represents a significant philosophical barrier to the adoption of imagery content programs.
I’ve recently seen the results of two surveys conducted by state GIS offices where they asked their user communities about the potential switch to an imagery content program and received plenty of feedback about the importance of openly releasing and sharing the imagery data. There are compelling arguments that releasing the data is a force multiplier and that there is a strong return on investment2 (ROI) for the additional uses that occur when the data is set free. You won’t hear me arguing against them. That would be like arguing against motherhood and apple pie. There is no doubt that releasing open data is a net positive and I enthusiastically support doing so. In fact, I am convinced that every public-sector GIS leader would be in agreement on this point.
For some, I think the conversation ends there. They are satisfied that public domain release is important enough to rule out the option of an imagery content program. I understand that perspective, but I think there’s more to the story and what might seem like a black and white issue can take on shades of gray. What I think needs further consideration is what else could be done with the savings in switching from custom collection to a content program. Stated another way, let’s not debate the merits of freely releasing data (it’s clearly a good thing), but instead, let’s ask a tougher question; what is the highest and best use of those funds?
To use just one example, it’s clear that we’re now living in an era of increasingly potent storms, with ever-greater risks of flooding, coastal storm surges, rising sea levels, elevated wildfire risks, and other natural hazards fed by warmer oceans and more volatile atmospheric conditions. This in turn leads to growing urgency related to the resilience of our constructed infrastructure. Each of these threats also includes public safety, whether identifying vulnerable populations, responding to those in urgent need, or planning for the inevitable care for those displaced by disasters.
All of these will benefit from the use of geospatial data and analytics. Do you have all of the data to meet these urgent needs? Probably not. Is up-to-date, high-resolution imagery an important data source for these needs? Yes, of course. But what about other datasets? Do you have high-quality and up-to-date LiDAR data for all of the areas that need it? Has a complete and accurate address database been created and put into full maintenance mode? How about parcel data? The National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) just published the results of the 2019 Geospatial Maturity Assessment and the self-reported survey results from 41 states on the status of 9 GIS data layers shows no state with an overall A grade. These report cards clearly identify data gaps where attention is sorely needed. The list could go on and on, and we’re still only talking about base-level data and not other specialty data or the analytics capabilities to exploit data to fullest advantage.
If you’re being completely honest, are you sure that the higher cost for imagery acquired under a custom collection contract is the best use of your limited funds? Might you be better off spending less on imagery under a content program and using the savings to acquire LiDAR data for critical, flood-prone areas? Which of these choices will produce the highest-value outcome? That’s a tough choice.
I sometimes hear anecdotes about small businesses that rely on downloading the imagery to support their business, and that’s a very strong use case for open release. But if you look more deeply at it, could that use case be satisfied with a more functional web viewer that includes measurement tools with the imagery, as an alternative to download? Would the cost to develop and deploy that added functionality be offset with savings from a content program? How many other use cases are there where an alternatives analysis is in order? More tough choices, but those are questions worth considering.
Navigating tough choices is a challenging process. That’s why I am a big advocate of strategic planning. When you engage your GIS community in the process of cataloging and prioritizing the full range of needs and gain a more complete understanding of your operational context, you will be far better positioned to make those tough choices. In many cases, you may not even be aware of the choices you face until you conduct a strategic plan. If you have an engaged GIS community through your strategic planning efforts, they will have an ownership stake in your decisions and can better understand the trade-offs.
My GIO days are behind me and I’m not privy to the political currents or the myriad of subtle details and circumstances that frame these decision points, state by state, on what’s the best decision regarding imagery content programs. My gut sense, nearly four years removed from that context, is that I would lean towards embracing an imagery content program and use the savings on other priority data. And as part of that process, I would want to engage the user community and be transparent about it.
The role of a GIS Leader is to navigate tough choices. There will be winners and losers with every choice you make. To borrow a line from Geddy Lee of the band Rush, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”.
My wish for you is to pause, look and think deeply about tough choices, and engage your community, or more simply; choose wisely.
1I am also skipping over the potential to include a publicly-releasable version of the imagery as a negotiable item in an imagery content deal. Some imagery companies are willing to provide a down-sampled version of the data (say, from 15cm to 30cm resolution) or a previous vintage of imagery covering the same area, which can be publicly released, at additional cost.
2AppGeo and Sebago Technics conducted a Return On Investment study for the State of Maine’s orthoimagery program in 2012 and the open availability of the imagery in the public domain was an underlying assumption of the study, which conservatively estimated an ROI of between 4.35 (low estimate) and 12.86 (high estimate) using just 3 use cases. See https://www.maine.gov/geolib/publications/Return_on_Investment/MaineOrthoROIStudy_FINAL.pdf.