Do I Care About the USGS?

Adena Schutzberg has been reporting on the proposed consolidation and reorganization of USGS regional mapping centers, and in a new column challenges us to begin to consider the implications.

It's true that the geospatial blogosphere has been pretty quiet about this issue. I've been thinking about it a lot, but have avoided writing about it until I had something coherent to say. Adena's pointed questions have helped me, and I hope that will others ask themselves and share their thoughts.

I do care about the future of mapping at the USGS. Public geodata and maps, maintained by and for We the People, is a good thing. Census boundaries, voting districts, boundaries of our public lands and waterways, etc, all these should be freely available to the public forever. I hate to start dropping buzzwords so early into this post, but open geodata is fuel for the small organizations and companies that operate in the long tail of GIS. A grade school class can't afford to buy data from NavTech for a class mapping project, and shouldn't be dependent on the largesse of data providers. The same goes for a local non-profit mapping the demographics of their community. Open geodata helps these people get in the game.

That said, mapping is no longer region-specific, and I lean in favor of a consolidation of the centers. There is a world-class Tropical Meteorology group here in Fort Collins (smack in the middle of the continent at 40 degrees North and 1500 meters above sea level) at CSU's Department of Atmospheric Science; you don't have to be physically located in a particular region of the world in order to study or catalog its properties. If we can save some money by shutting off the A/C, lights, and sprinklers at a few sites, I am all for it. Realistically, these operating expenses are smaller than the payroll, but every little bit helps.

I have mixed feelings about moving the mapping duties of the USGS to the private sector. The notion that the private sector is always more efficient than government is largely a myth, albeit a popular and powerful myth in our society which puts doctrine and faith ahead of reason and analysis. The more important factor is the level of maturity and inertia in an organization, whether public or private. I'd like to see the evidence that Raytheon/IBM/Microsoft, private sector monoliths, could run our public geodata and mapping operations any more effectively than a consolidated, ship-shape USGS. As Adena notes, the USGS is already heavily partnered with such companies now. If we go even further in this direction, I fear more outdated (Web 1.0) boondoggles such as the Geospatial One-Stop. It's fresh out of 1995, and we're using it as much as we listen to Rednex on our iPods. That's not at all for you old folks ;) Instead, let's try to invigorate the USGS with fresh, cutting edge ideas from universities and smaller companies that are still in their early innovative stage.

Now, let's find out if there is anything to these assertions of cronyism. If so, a reorg of the USGS is only going to bring more of the status quo.

Correction: a reader, who understandably wishes to remain anonymous, points out that my original musical reference, Vanilla Ice, predates mainstream emergence of the web.