The main determinant of whether an agency should acquire geographic data subject to restrictions on reuse or redistribution is the agency’s interpretation of its mandates and missions. Factors that agencies should take into account when exercising discretion are discussed later.
When government uses geographic data to promulgate regulations, formulate policy, or take other actions that affect the rights and obligations of citizens, there is a compelling interest in making these data available so that the public may understand, support, or challenge government decisions.6 This interest often will be served by acquiring unlimited rights in data, but also may be accommodated in some circumstances by licensing data under conditions that permit access for more limited purposes. For example, in some cases, the public may need access only to views derived from satellite data, rather than the underlying data themselves. The important principle is that access to information cannot be so limited, its distribution so difficult, or its content so closely held by government that outcomes of political debates are determined by unequal access to data.
When geographic data are used for purely operational tasks (e.g., emergency dispatch, project management–style resource allocation, traffic management, military operations), distribution may not be necessary. When such circumstances do arise, the agency is like a private business—it should adopt licensing solutions if they are more cost-effective than the alternatives.