Impact of Geospatial Data Act of 2018 in U.S. - Time Will Tell - Inside GNSS - Global Navigation Satellite Systems Engineering, Policy, and Design

Impact of Geospatial Data Act of 2018 in U.S. – Time Will Tell

On October 3, 2018, the Geospatial Data Act of 2018 (GDA) was passed by Congress as part of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2018. Two days later it was signed into law by the President. The GDA has been well received by the U.S. geospatial community. However, it will be several years before one can determine the impact that it will have on geospatial information management in the U.S.

Prior to the GDA, the primary guidance for the coordination of spatial activities by the federal government (i.e. the collection, use, sharing and dissemination of geospatial information) was Office of Management and Budget (OMB) revised Circular A-16 and related guidance. The GDA codifies many elements of Circular A-16. However, it further clarifies the role of government agencies and should give Congress greater insight into how government agencies in the U.S. collect and use geospatial information. 

Geospatial data is defined in the GDA as “information that is tied to a location on the Earth, including by identifying the geographic location and characteristics of natural or constructed features and boundaries on the Earth, and that is generally represented in vector datasets by points, lines, polygons, or other complex geographic features or phenomena.” Geospatial information can be derived from a number of sources, including “remote sensing, mapping, and surveying technologies” and “images and raster datasets, aerial photographs, and other forms of geospatial data or datasets in digitized or non-digitized form”

However, certain types of geospatial data are specifically carved out from the GDA. These include: 

(i) geospatial data and activities of an Indian tribe not carried out, in whole or in part, using Federal funds, as determined by the tribal government; 

(ii) classified national security-related geospatial data and activities of the Department of Defense, unless declassified; 

(iii) classified national security-related geospatial data and activities of the Department of Energy, unless declassified; 

(iv) geospatial data and activities under chapter 22 of title 10, United States Code, or section 110 of the National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C. 3045); 

(v) intelligence geospatial data and activities, as determined by the Director of National Intelligence; and 

(vi) certain declassified national security-(vi)related geospatial data and activities of the intelligence community, as determined by the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Energy, or the Director of National Intelligence.

Those familiar with OMB Circular A-16 will recognize many of the elements of the GDA. For example, Section 753 codifies the fundamental role of the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) in geospatial information management in the U.S. The FGDC remains within the Department of Interior and is designated as the primary entity for developing, implementing and reviewing the policies, practices, and standards relating to geospatial data pursuant to OMB guidance. It is also responsible for developing and maintaining a strategic plan for the development and implementation of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure.” The GDA continues the concept of designated government agencies being responsible for the management of “data themes” and related or supporting resources, services and products. Additional responsibilities for such agencies include coordinating with other stakeholders, protecting privacy, and using geospatial data standards. Section 754 of the GDA establishes the National Geospatial Advisory Committee.  This section formalizes and builds upon the current NGAC, which was created by the Secretary of Interior in 2008 as a Federal Advisory Committee. In addition, Section 758 describes the role of the Geospatial Platform as “an electronic service that provides access to geospatial data and metadata for geospatial data to the public.”

However, there are several differences between the GDA and current practice in the United States. For example, the GDA changes the composition of the existing FGDC Steering Committee. Most notably the Department of Defense is not included, although the Director of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has the right to appoint a member to FGDC. The roles and responsibilities of the FGDC and the NGAC also are broader than current practice. For example, the FGDC has reporting requirements to Congress on the status of data themes and achievements of relevant government agencies; NGAC can request information directly from government agencies, upon concurrence of the chair of the FGDC. In addition, the GDA also increases the transparency in the collection and use of geospatial information within the government by requiring agencies to include geospatial data in budget submissions. Also of note, Section 759C provides that government agencies “may, to the maximum extent practical, rely upon and use the private Sector in the United States for the provision of geospatial data and services”.

By codifying many elements of existing geospatial information management policies in the U.S. the GDA is certainly a step forward as it gives federal stakeholders greater authority and clearer responsibilities. However, it will take several years to determine the overall impact of GDA. For example, some believe that geospatial information management would have been better served if the FGDC had reported to Office of Management of Budget (OMB), as OMB has a larger role in the federal budget. Moreover, it is unclear whether increased Congressional oversight will cause geospatial information management to be caught up in Washington politics. 


Mr. Pomfret is a corporate partner at the Williams Mullen law firm and the founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy. He counsels businesses and government agencies on the policy and legal issues that impact the collection, use, storage and distribution of data, such as licensing, privacy and data protection, data quality and liability and regulatory matters. Mr. Pomfret regularly speaks on around the globe on these issues and has presented to committees of the United Nations and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ingo Baumann is the column editor for GNSS & the Law, and the co-founder and partner of BHO Legal in Cologne, Germany, a boutique law firm for European high technology projects mainly in the space sector. Ingo studied law at the Universities of Muenster and Cologne. His doctoral thesis, written at the Institute for Air and Space Law in Cologne, examined the international and European law of satellite communications. Baumann worked several years for the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), including as head of the DLR Galileo Project Office and CEO of the DLR operating company for the German Galileo Control Center.