The United States is a world economic power in spite of its surveying and mapping, not because of it.

That’s the conclusion of the former Wyoming governor, Jim Geringer, who recently released a report card on the nation’s spatial data infrastructure. With an overall grade of C, the United States would rank behind some 15 other countries. Geringer pointed to Abu Dhabi as an example of a nation that has an excellent spatial data infrastructure, and uses it in almost every government decision and program.

Why is our nation’s surveying and mapping infrastructure as important as it roads, bridges, airports, waterworks and other physical infrastructure? Let’s look at the ways:

  • The Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare,” includes 814 provisions requiring location/geographic/place-based data for implementation. The lack of data, or a geospatial management in the Department of Health and Human Services,  could be a factor in the failure of websites, exchanges and other methods of delivering quality, affordable medical attention to those in need.
  • The federal government wastes $2 billion a year on some 77,000 unneeded buildings, and the Government Accountability Office cites the fact Uncle Sam lacks a current, accurate inventory of the land and buildings it owns, finding existing data is “unreliable and of limited usefulness” and “not current or reliable.”
  • The lack of uniform national parcel data in United States means no government agency could properly track real estate trends or access an “early warning system” that could have prevented, or at least minimized, the trillion-dollar mortgage foreclosure crisis.
  • Rising sea levels threaten coastal watershed counties that are home to 163.8 million Americans — approximately 52 percent of the nation’s population — with the number expected to increase by more than 15 million by 2020. However, accurate data and integrated information to enable coastal communities to address many climate, environmental and emergency management issues does not exist. There is no accurate shoreline surveying and mapping data to measure, monitor, verify or validated the alleged effects of climate change. This seriously affects the coastal zone, which is the home of over half of the nation’s economic productivity.
  • When Congress seeks to reauthorize MAP-21, the current federal highway law, essential are surveying, mapping and other location-based services to plan, design, inventory, assess, operate and maintain highways and transit systems. Vehicle to vehicle (V2V) or “connected vehicle” technology to enable vehicles to communicate potential risks to drivers and avoid rear-end, lane change and intersection crashes requires accurate spatial data. The transportation layer received the Geringer report card’s lowest grade of D. MAP-21 Reauthorization provides an opportunity for Congress to not only leverage investments and introduce new geospatial technology, data, products and services, but also to reduce costs, and enhance safety and efficiency in our nation’s transportation systems.
  • Pipelines in the United States could encircle Earth 25 times. It is estimated an underground utility line is hit somewhere in the nation every 60 seconds. There were approximately 335,000 underground excavation damages in 2013. Improved underground infrastructure location data would enhance public safety, environmental protection and the economy.
  • The federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is $24 billion in debt to U.S. taxpayers. These losses are in part due to inadequate mapping data, and result in frequent flooding or unwise construction. Current, accurate elevation and structure data, and better use of surveying technology, would help bring fairness, loss prevention and lower costs to NFIP.
  • NBC News recently reported on technical flaws in E-911 systems resulting in inaccurate location and untimely dispatching of ambulances and emergency medical personnel.

Accurate surveying and mapping –  or National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) –  can be a matter of life or death. A national program to create such data was launched in a 1994 Executive Order by President Bill Clinton, but it has languished. According to Geringer, NSDI is “not complete and not well governed” and called for a “move into a coordinated and integrated data set.”

The Geringer report card encourages government agencies to improve the national spatial data infrastructure to better support efficient government operations at all levels. “The goal of the report card evaluation is to bring attention to the need for current and accurate geospatial data for the nation,” he said. As governor, geospatial framework data was “my reference” when making policy or doing analysis, Geringer explained. “You don’t even know you’re making an erroneous assumption,” when using dated, incomplete or inaccurate spatial data. That “impacts the quality of a decision.”  He went on to say spatial data affects “decision-making, policy and economics.”

It is a requirement political leaders of both parties can ill-afford to ignore.

John M. Palatiello is executive director of MAPPS, the only national association in the surveying, spatial data and geographic information systems fields. His own firm, John M. Palatiello & Associates, additionally handles governmental affairs and other outreach and management responsibilities for various professional associations in the respective markets. He can be reached at