Society’s goals are reflected in government’s evolving laws, policies, and institutions. Like other powerful, flexible technologies, spatial technologies and affiliated geographic data pose multiple opportunities and challenges. For this reason, geographic data policies that focus too narrowly on a single societal goal or issue are likely to have unintended consequences. Solutions need to balance all relevant goals, and agencies should identify these goals early and keep them constantly in mind as they weigh data policy decisions.
This chapter summarizes societal goals that agencies often pursue within their legislated missions and U.S. government information policy generally. Although the discussion focuses on federal agency goals, similar considerations apply to state and local agencies. We do not analyze what government might do to advance any particular goal, or how licensing might fit into such a strategy; that analysis is presented in Chapter 7.
2.2 PROMOTING GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY AND TRANSPARENCY
Democracy depends on government accountability and transparency. In part, this rests on access to government information. Without information,
individuals cannot effectively participate in matters in which government affects their daily lives.
The Freedom of Information Act creates a balance between the rights of citizens to be informed about government activities and the need to maintain confidentiality of some government records. In many cases, political transparency may require distributing geographic data to anyone who wants it. Citizens need access to geographic data to become educated in the detailed functioning of government; to petition government agencies, lobby legislators, analyze regulatory decisions; or to challenge illegal actions and government abuses in court. Government uses geographic data to make myriad decisions, and citizens often cannot know whether inappropriate manipulation of data has occurred without access to the entire record. An important principle of democracy is that access to government information is a matter of equal protection—that is, all citizens should have the same rights to public information to understand and be able to challenge government actions.
2.3 MAXIMIZING NET BENEFITS: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BENEFITS AND COSTS
Taxpayers have an interest in seeing that government maximizes the difference between benefits and costs when it performs its missions. Licensing may sometimes be the best way to achieve this goal, depending on costs and government’s need to redistribute the data. Government’s redistribution needs range from internal use to broad redistribution.
Costs are not limited to the license fees that government must pay. The concept of cost also extends beyond dollar royalties. In the case of licenses, it includes the costs of negotiating transactions, administering intellectual property rights management obligations, and enforcement in the event of disputes. Agencies must also acquire data of sufficient quality and quantity to perform their missions. To some extent, this requirement can be defined in such technical terms as geographic coverage, timeliness, frequency of updates, spatial resolution, and accuracy of annotations. Agencies also need sufficient use and redistribution rights to meet known needs and unexpected needs that might not evolve until much later. A cost-benefit analysis must consider both time frames.
A further consideration for agencies is that society may not obtain full value for its investment unless existing geographic data are used again and again. The benefits of data reuse have long been recognized and are
reflected in various archiving strategies, ranging from traditional paper map libraries to today’s electronic geolibraries.1
That being said, government’s outright acquisition of data without license restrictions is no guarantee that use and reuse will exceed that of potential acquisition alternatives. In part, this is because government is primarily focused on governance, not data distribution.2 Agencies need to resist such a parochial viewpoint. A comprehensive data strategy must ensure that the taxpayers’ investment in data generates maximum value not just for government, but for the entire society.
Lastly, agencies can avoid purchasing duplicative or unnecessary data by broadening their view beyond isolated, one-off transactions. This is a particular challenge for the federal system, in which purchasing decisions tend to be dispersed among multiple agencies. This challenge also transcends licensing and exists even where data are purchased outright.
Pursuit of the public good demands deep inquiry in support of decision making. Government needs to take into account both short- and long-term impacts of its decisions when weighing benefits and costs.
2.4 OBTAINING DATA ON BEHALF OF SOCIETY
Society acquires and distributes data for many purposes. In some cases, this work is done by private enterprise. In others, government agencies collect or purchase data to make them available to the broader society. Since the early nineteenth century, the federal government has mounted massive mapping programs to support settlement, commerce, and exploitation and preservation of the nation’s natural resources. Among the products of these programs are topographic maps, marine and aeronautical navigation charts, census data, and digital orthoimages.3 In the twenty-first
century, government data acquisitions can similarly support development of basic resources for the information economy by laying the groundwork for new and more valuable products.
Agency missions can require acquisition and distribution of data, or both. Agencies can acquire geographic data by (1) having employees collect it, (2) hiring outside contractors to collect it, (3) purchasing preexisting data from the private sector, or (4) obtaining a license to use preexisting or newly collected data. Unlike the first three options, licensing does not give government unlimited rights to use and redistribute the data. Regardless of whether a federal agency purchases or licenses data from a commercial vendor,4 the vendor typically remains free to license or sell the data to others. Licensing may be a useful way for agencies to acquire data if the existence of a private market reduces the price paid by taxpayers. In the case of distribution, agencies can pass data to users directly or through commercial intermediaries. Both options may—but need not—include licenses.
2.5 SUPPORTING GOVERNMENT MISSIONS AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS
Geographic data are widely used within and outside government to assist economic development, protect property rights, support education, maintain the nation’s physical infrastructure, protect the environment, develop natural resources, support health care, protect national security, facilitate taxation, and ensure the safety, health, security, property, and privacy of individual citizens. For example, national security and law enforcement agencies may use anything from street-centerline data that provide a reference framework for tracking patrol cars to images of battlefields from space. In many cases, government officials require access to assets that also support civilian applications. Whether the asset is a readily duplicated information good (e.g., street-centerline data files) or a scarce physical asset (e.g., a remote-sensing satellite) often bears on the decision of how data will be procured, in particular whether licensing is a feasible option. For example, in the former case, there likely are alternative options in the marketplace, some of which may offer a greater difference between benefits and costs than licensing. In the case of satellite data,
there likely are fewer alternative sources and thus a greater likelihood that licensing represents a plausible alternative based on cost.
Governments and commercial businesses collect sensitive geographic information in support of their missions. National security and law enforcement agencies fear misuse of these data by hostile nations, terrorists, and criminals. On the other hand, businesses and government agencies at all levels need the data to make their operations more efficient and effective. Government must balance security concerns against legitimate uses and citizens’ basic “right to know.” In some cases, this may mean controlling access to information so that it reaches some people but not others. Nonetheless, widespread access to geographic data gathered by government, including declassified data, can have economic benefits. A strong economy is critical to national security.
Citizens’ rights, including privacy, are profoundly affected by the collection and maintenance of geographic data by the commercial sector and government. Individuals, as well as corporations in some cases, have a privacy interest in controlling access to data that describe them. To some extent, the interest is based on fears that governments, corporations, or other individuals will misuse such information. Examples include files containing information on wealth, income, purchases, daily travel routes, or health; and satellite, aerial, and street-level images of private property. Society also protects some information even when misuse is not an issue. This is based on case law or legislative judgments that individuals should be allowed to control inherently “private” information.
Government geographic data acquisition and dissemination policies must balance multiple social goals, including (1) promoting government accountability and transparency, (2) maximizing net benefits (the difference between benefits and costs), (3) obtaining data on behalf of society, and (4) supporting government missions and individual rights. Agencies must make these decisions in accordance with existing laws, regulations, government policies, and budget constraints. There are times when it is prudent for government to be a licensee or licensor of geographic data and times when it is not.
A LOCAL GOVERNMENT’S DREAM
The staff at Franklin County’s Department of Natural Resources want to create a digital map of soil erosion potential to help them advise on land development activities in sensitive areas. Because the watersheds that affect erosion extend well beyond the county boundary, Ed Johnson goes to an online portal to find and download the data he needs. These data include up-to-date, detailed aerial imagery of the watersheds from a commercial database; soil type data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; vegetation coverage from the state department of natural resources, and the locations and sizes of culverts, bridges, channels, and other storm-water facilities from Franklin County and neighboring counties.
Mr. Johnson is able to acquire most of this information without negotiating use terms or paying substantial fees. Many local, state, and federal agencies, as well as a number of private parties, have placed some of their data into an online commons by using licenses that minimally constrain the downstream uses of the data. Additionally, the portal offers convenient “one-stop shopping” for many suppliers’ data and reduces the cost of searching for data. Finally, standard online license forms reduce the complexity of licensing and the need for separate negotiations between Mr. Johnson and different data suppliers. This streamlining has brought down transaction costs.
Although several commercial aerial imagery offerings meet Mr. Johnson’s technical requirements, he quickly selects and purchases the one set of commercial imagery offering the best combination of quality, price, and use rights for his needs.
In the end, the dream comes down to this: Can a Web portal based on standardized licensing be developed that efficiently supports an active information commons and a thriving marketplace in geographic data and services?