Thoughts on the Geospatial Data Act of 2017

Before delving into this topic, a big disclaimer is important: I am not a lawyer or a lobbyist or any sort of professional policy expert. The following analysis is based on 25 years experience providing geospatial consulting services to the federal government. You should read the full text of the bill yourself and draw your own conclusions.

On 23 June 2017, the American Association of Geographers (AAG) published a newsletter titled “A New Plot to Hijack GIS and Mapping,” which laid out AAG’s position on the Geospatial Data Act of 2017 . The title caught my attention, and, as is my preference, I stopped reading the AAG piece and went straight to the text of the bill.

The bill, Senate 1253, is sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Senator Mark Warner (D) of Virginia. The bill would codify definitions, roles, and responsibilities for the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), National Geospatial Advisory Council (NGAC), the federal GeoPlatform, National Geospatial Data Asset (NGDA) themes, among other items.

In Section 2, it also includes a very broad definition of “geospatial data” which becomes significant later in the bill. For the most part, the bill is fairly unremarkable, except that much of what it defines has never been formally and consistently defined by federal legislation before. That could have value.

It is Section 11 where the bill gets interesting for me. For reference, here is the text of the section:


(a) In General.—The Committee and each covered agency shall, to the maximum extent practical, rely upon and use private individuals and entities in the United States for the acquisition of commercially available surveying and mapping and the provision of geospatial data and services. The Federal Government shall not commence or continue any surveying and mapping activity to provide, duplicate, or compete with a commercial product or service if the product or service is available on a more economical basis from a commercial source

(b) Definition.—For purposes of selecting a firm for a contract under chapter 11 of title 40, United States Code, the term “surveying and mapping” shall have the meaning given the term “geospatial data” in section 2 of this Act.

(c) Modification Of Federal Acquisition Regulation.—Part 36 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (48 C.F.R. 36.000 et seq.) shall be revised to specify that the definition of the term “architectural and engineering services” includes surveying and mapping services and the acquisition of geospatial data, to which the selection procedures of subpart 36.6 of such part 36 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation shall apply.

Subsection A has pros and cons and I think it would ultimately be a wash compared to the current federal data market. The protections it defines, however, seem to be one-way. It does not specifically define the ability of the federal government to continue using federally-developed data sets in the event of the emergence of similar private-sector data sets. (For example, TIGER vice Uber street network data.)

Subsection B is where things get interesting. It expands the definition of “surveying and mapping” to include the broad definition of “geospatial data” from Section 2. In itself, that is not concerning. That it does so in relation to Title 40 may be concerning. Title 40 addresses the procurement of architect-engineer (A-E) services, where “surveying and mapping” is mentioned. It is important to note what is not said here: Neither the GDA nor Title 40 specifically compel the procurement of “geospatial data” from A-E firms. Together, they merely include the expanded definition of “geospatial data” in the types of services that can be procured via A-E contracts.

Subsection C is what really caught my eye. Here, the GDA would modify the FAR itself to include the expanded definition of “geospatial data” into the procedures for procuring A-E services. (Subsection 36.6 specifically addresses A-E services.) While this could have the effect of limiting federal options for procuring such work to A-E firms, the FAR itself may already contain the necessary safeguards. FAR 36.601-4(a)(4) contains the following language:

Professional surveying and mapping services of an architectural or engineering nature. Surveying is considered to be an architectural and engineering service and shall be procured pursuant to section 36.601 from registered surveyors or architects and engineers. Mapping associated with the research, planning, development, design, construction, or alteration of real property is considered to be an architectural and engineering service and is to be procured pursuant to section 36.601. However, mapping services that are not connected to traditionally understood or accepted architectural and engineering activities, are not incidental to such architectural and engineering activities or have not in themselves traditionally been considered architectural and engineering services shall be procured pursuant to provisions in Parts 13, 14, and 15.

As can be seen, the FAR contains language restricting the definition of A-E services. The text of the GDA 2017 does nothing to modify this clause. (I’m not sure that it could do so.)

All of this being said, the text of the GDA clearly expands the scope of services that can fall under the A-E services umbrella. What are those services? Thankfully, the US Army Corps of Engineers has a document that lays out what it typically procures as A-E services: USACE A-E Services (PDF). The table is shown on the 14th page. The small business size standards are out of date, but updated size standards can be found here: SBA small business size standards by NAICS code (PDF).

The size standards are not a trivial piece of information. The size standards under the relevant A-E NAICS codes are typically much lower than those for IT firms providing data services. If an existing IT small business finds its work reclassified as A-E services, it could have two effects: 1) The firm may simply not qualify and 2) If the firm does the work to qualify, it may not be able to compete for the work as a small business anymore.

As I mentioned previously, it is very important to note that nothing in the text of the GDA specifically compels the federal government to change how it does business, but the language throughout Section 11 of the GDA essentially adds no value for two reasons:

  1. It seems to protect private sector investments in geospatial data production without any clear evidence of a need to do so. Many commercial geospatial data sets are value-added products that derive, at least partially, from federal data sets. Additionally, much of the data produced by the the federal government is at national scale and not useful for A-E purposes. A-E quality data is typically already procured from the private sector. Subsection 11(a) solves a problem that simply doesn’t exist.
  2. It has the potential to add confusion to the procurement of geospatial data services by requiring contracting officers to determine whether A-E procurement procedures are warranted for a host of geospatial data work not previously included. This uncertainty would undoubtedly work in the favor of large, incumbent A-E firms.

Elsewhere, the GDA lays out some useful definitions and policies. For example, Section 9 explicitly requires coordination with non-Federal entities, which could increase re-use of taxpayer-funded data. Without Section 11, it could be potentially useful legislation. My hope is that, if the GDA makes it out of committee, that Section 11 is removed in its entirety.