Trading off this week’s highly-charged political theme of a potential federal government shutdown in the United States, it’s worth discussing the implications of a lack of federal mapping. Elimination of federal mapmaking is really out of the question as the federal government needs to map for so many policy and security reasons, yet there has been a steady reduction of the role of federal mapping for decades. What would the implications be if there weren’t a national mapping effort at all?
Trading off this week’s highly-charged political theme of a potential federal government shutdown in the United States, it’s worth discussing the implications of a lack of federal mapping. Elimination of federal mapmaking is really out of the question as the federal government needs to map for so many policy and security reasons, yet there has been a steady reduction of the role of federal mapmaking for decades. What would the implications be if there weren’t a national mapping effort at all?
The idea of consolidated federal mapping has long been in discussion with the current iteration taking the form of a cloud-based geospatial platform to share common data and services among the 40 or so federal agencies that conduct some form of mapping. The National States Geographic Information Council has suggested that the federal government support coordinated, but separate, statewide spatial data infrastructures, providing standards and accountability for each state, but largely reducing their own involvement in mapping. Both approaches offer greater efficiency, and better collaboration, and each acknowledge a need for a fundamental evolution of the role of the federal government in mapping.
Mapping vs. Mapmaking
The distinction between mapping and mapmaking is important here, as the act of mapping involves a considerable on-the-ground component of surveying and data collection that is time consuming and costly and not easy to coordinate from a central location. It used to be that the U.S. federal government was the primary mapping and surveying employer, but that’s dramatically shifted to the private sector over the past decade. With this approach, the federal government continues to employ the majority of mappers, but purchases these services rather than directly employing the mappers. While this move has alleviated much concern about the role of government versus industry, what’s further disputed is whether the federal agencies should defer to states for mapping.
Mapmaking is an entirely different angle though, as mapmakers that pull together geospatial data and create map products and online mapping sites return insight through spatial analysis, are embedded throughout federal institutions. Arguably, this role of mapmaker is the most important role for federal agencies, as they pull together source information to inform policy decisions and to monitor the performance of policy through constantly updated geographic perspectives. There is a constant need for more up-to-date and accurate maps to inform policy decisions as our complex systems require these inputs in order to see performance and predict outcomes.
The move toward more open sharing of both data and decision support tools has some implications on the role and importance of federal mapmakers as well. With open data and access to the core source code of the tools and algorithms that drive government decision support, the community has a greater role to play as both a watchdog of policy decisions and an added input to better informed decisions.
While openness and transparency of data certainly won’t replace the need for government mapmakers, the added insight of those that have access to government data and tools has the potential to question the government’s role as having the best insight. Outside eyes on data and process will serve to reduce reliability on the conclusions that are drawn from data, and spread the burden and responsibility of making sense of data and insight to the broader community. Just as the democratization of data on the Internet has taken away some of the advantages of big business over small business, these same tools have placed much less of an importance on big government.
The increasing capabilities of individual map collection devices to help collect real-time feeds to improve the accuracy and currency of maps has serious implications on how we collect data. In the past, the federal agencies have had the role of creating map products and providing mapping resources, such as imagery and demographics. The ability of individuals to collaborate and map is proving to be a watershed moment, where we begin to question large-scale map collection expenses in favor of aggregated individual inputs.
The mandates of federal agencies make them well tuned to set the priority on needed insights at the country scale, and to ensure consistency of collection and aggregation. This role as the arbiter on authoritative data is something that can’t easily be replaced as there is no trusted source in a volunteered data scenario, and the consolidation of data from multiple points requires a rigor that is well established at the federal level.
Without a government shut-down, it’s really hard to understand all the services that our government provides. In the federal mapping and mapmaking realm, there are many data sets and resources that are critical to economic and social concerns to be easily glossed over here. There are broad changes occurring that reduce our dependence on federal mapping, yet the information and role of our authoritative data providers need to be examined closely should we elect to make any transitions in order to ensure consistency and reliability of their inputs.