GIS Bailout Money to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of USA

This has been analyzed so much in the blogosphere I feel a bit late to the party. But in a nutshell, Jack Dangermond (ESRI) and Anne Miglarese (Booz Allen Hamilton) have proposed getting $1.2 billion in bailout funds for a National GIS.

Yes, that’s billion with a ‘b’. No, I’m not sure what a national GIS is either. Here are some paraphrased (and editorialized) tidbits from the proposal:

  • $1.2 billion
  • Make a unified, up to date, publicly available digital map. Map of what isn't explicitly clear. Kind of like Google Maps, only.....well, no, just like that really.
  • It will support planners for transportation infrastructure, water resource management, alternative energy research, and project siting. In other words, GIS will be the "enabler" technology for the rest of the bailout spending.
  • Made an argument that sounds vaguely like we'll be able to map the economic calamity better. That would be a choropleth map with 1 color.
  • "A GIS system integrates information from many sources and authors using standardized protocols so that information can be harmonized and incorporated into a consistent framework to support multiple missions will this sentence never end blah blah blah....". It was the "standardized protocols" that threw me. I can't see ESRI going WMS/WFS/KML/GML with this. If I'm wrong I apologize and will humbly wait for the horsemen of the apocalypse to make an appearance.
  • Standard framework data schemas from sea to shining sea. Well played sir (I don't own any data).
  • Framework data to be captured includes imagery, parcels, elevation, wildlife corridor/crucial habitat.
  • USGS will take everybody's data and slap it together. Well played sir (I don't work there).
  • Need lots of ESRI software. I mean tons of it. The annual software maintenance bill will be larger than the GDP of Belgium. I'm reading between the lines here.
A lot of people have been harshing on ESRI over this proposal, but I'm prepared to cut them some slack. ESRI is a business, and our federal government is tossing around money like it can print the stuff (which it can). ESRI would be nuts not to try to get a piece of it. If I owned a Taco stand, I'd propose a billion dollar bailout for Taco stands. After all, those people putting the shovels into the ground have to eat. Nutritionally satisfied workers will optimize bailout efficiency. See how that works?

If we were to do something like this, I think it should really be two separate initiatives - a “GI” initiative (just the data), and a “S” (system or software) initiative.

For the GI part, I’m looking for four things. (1) The data layers should be comprehensive - the whole US, (2) the layers should have standardized schemas, (3) there should be data custodians to keep things current once the bailout goes away, and (4) the data and all derived products should be completely, 100% free, in cost and licensing, in an open format, forever.

Being free to the public seems to be a big deal for bloggers, and I agree. But I’d dual license the data - GPLish and corporate. In other words, anyone can get the data for free, but any derived data would have to be made available for free. If a data company wants to use the data for free they can, but then they can’t charge for that data or data derived from it. If a data company wants to get the data without giving away derived products for free, have a separate license for that and take them to the cleaners. I am not a lawyer, so that might be impossible. Back off man - I’m daydreaming here.

Now for the “S” part. Other than enriching a particular company (I’m look at you AIG), dumping a lot of money on a proprietary software vendor doesn’t make any sense to me. The technological gains will only help that company and their customers. The bailout money should have a wider focus than that.

Economist Dean Baker, who famously called the housing bust and economic collapse before it happened (to much ridicule at the time), proposed 7 ways to revitalize the economy. Number 6 is “Funding for the Development of Open Software”. From the article:

In the same vein, the government can spend $2 billion a year to develop open source software. This money can be used to further develop and simplify open source operating systems such as Linux, as well other forms of free software. The payoffs from this spending would be enormous. Imagine that every computer buyer in the world would be able to get a computer for which the operating system was free, as was almost all the software that they would ever use.

This would surely save consumers an average of at least $200 per computer. With sales at close to 20 million a year, the savings in the United States alone could easily exceed the cost of supporting software development. Adding in the benefits (and presumably some contributions) from the rest of the world, we will be way ahead by going the route of publicly funded open software open software. The cost would be $2 billion a year.

And that’s where I’d invest the money for the “S” part. Invest some money is ESRI, maybe their software gets better. Invest some money in open source GIS, everybody’s software gets better, including ESRI. ESRI uses open source software in its products, as do most proprietary GIS vendors. And the software will get better faster and for less money. And the results of the work, of course, will be freely available for anyone to take advantage of.

So, that’s my 5 cents for your 1.2 billion. Different data and system tracks, free and open data, free and open systems. Of course, nobody would put me in charge of 1.2 billion. My wife doesn’t even let me dress myself. But if they did, you’d all be invited to one heck of a party at my house.*