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GIS advocates spar over 'exclusionary procurement' rule in national geospatial data proposal

New legislation designed to strengthen America's geospatial data infrastructure is under fire from stakeholders in the surveying and mapping industry who say new rules would give unfair preference to certain vendors.

Ryan Johnston
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Ryan Johnston Editorial Intern

Ryan Johnston is an editorial intern for Scoop News Group. Johnston contributes content to all SNG publications.

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Federal legislation that would define the future of the geospatial data industry, including surveying, mapping and other cartographic enterprise, is receiving pushback from stakeholders in the sector.

The Geospatial Data Act (GDA), introduced in May, has bipartisan support and is awaiting review from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. In the works for several sessions of Congress, the bill would provide for a coordinated National Geospatial Data Infrastructure (NDSI), encouraging the development of key mapping services and programs in "both the private and public sectors — supporting apps, innovative tools and activities as wide-ranging as emergency preparedness to finding a restaurant," according to Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, one of the cosponsors of the bill.

Building a robust NSDI has been an area of advocacy for the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) for its entire 25-year lifespan. And while the The National Association of State Chief Information Officers also signed on its support of the bill in 2015, others say the bill would establish a new paradigm in procurement that unfairly favors certain vendors. 

According to NSGIC's advocacy priorities, the bill would codify executive orders from previous administrations and other documents directing the Federal Geographic Data Committee, which provides guidance on federal geospatial projects, and "bring it all together" under the NDSI. The bill would also provide the FGDC authority to make other agencies follow existing "common sense" rules. 

Additionally, the group says, the bill would assist Congress in tracking NDSI progress, require partnerships between federal, state and local governments and private sector organizations, and raise the profile of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee.

Some stakeholders in the geospatial and mapping community do not agree with NSGIC's analysis of the bill, and contend that it will have a drastically different economic effect than the one NSGIC and the co-sponsors envision. The American Association of Geographers (AAG) is among those to have taken issue with the impact the bill would have on federal procurement processes for surveying and mapping projects.

Stakeholder contention

In a letter from the association released after the introduction of the latest version of the act, the group said the current text would limit the awarding of federal contracts for virtually all geospatial data activities to only architectural and engineering firms — effectively excluding non-licensed geospatial information systems, mapping and information technology companies from securing such contracts. It all stems back to a reference by the association to the procurement processes established in the 1972 Brooks Act.

AAG says the new legislation, if not amended, would "set up a system of exclusionary procurement" that would reclassify many services within the category of architecture and engineering, giving preference to firms already licensed under the old definition.

"The purpose of the Brooks Act would be radically altered and its scope dramatically expanded ... to the great detriment of the huge existing GIS IT sector and all other related companies and organizations which have long been engaged in cutting-edge GIS and mapping," AAG wrote.

The association says this limitation will have a "disastrous effect of limiting federal contracts to A&E firms for almost any mapping-related data collection, analysis, or use activity at the exclusion of vast swaths of current GIS, IT, and mapping industries and related organizations.”

A spokesperson for Warner told StateScoop, however, "There is nothing in the bill that would expand the scope of the Brooks Act."

"It simply clarifies the status of geospatial data for mapping and surveying services that are already within the scope of the Brooks Act," the spokesperson said. "However, out of an abundance of caution, staff are working with stakeholders, including AAG, to address their concerns.”

Oregon state Geographic Information Officer Cy Smith likewise wrote in a letter posted on NSGIC's blog that the AAG's concerns are unfounded.

"NSGIC worked with staff from the offices of Senators Hatch and Wyden to craft the definition of geospatial data and services," Smith wrote. "[The language] set the ground rules for the geospatial activities that do not require a licensed professional and ... the geospatial activities that do."

John Wertman, senior program manager for government relations at the AAG, disagreed with NSGIC’s appraisal.

"NSGIC is right when they say there is a delineation in the definition of geospatial data, but the problem is the way the bill is written,” Wertman told StateScoop. “Regardless of whether the definition of geospatial data in the GDA recognizes that there are two different types of mapping activities, both of them [were] put under the control of the Brooks Act procurement system. So there is at the very minimum a failure of the current text of the bill to separate out the roles of licensed surveyors and licensed engineers versus the wider GIS and geography and mapping community.”

Despite the disagreement, Wertman is optimistic that revisions to the bill will come.

“We have heard from several people who have spoken to folks on the Hill in the offices of the various co-sponsors, and our understanding and hope is that the bill is going to be revised, and we hope it will be revised in a way, of course, that satisfies the objections raised," Wertman said.

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State & Local News, Budgets & Taxes, Careers & Elected Officials, Innovation, Partnerships, Smart Cities, Tech News, Data & Analytics, Geospatial Information Systems (GIS), Association News, National States Geographic Information Council, AAG, American Association of Geographers

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