The State of the Profession

What is the state of the geospatial profession in early 2012?  “Hanging in there” is my assessment. Below are the highlights of results from a year-end survey of geospatial firms as well as an outline of policy issues being debated on the capital.
 

Economic Survey

MAPPS, the association of private sector geospatial firms, conducts a biennial economic survey of its members in January and June of each year.  The results for early 2012 show cautious optimism for the coming year.  Most principals, owners, and partners of private practice firms in surveying, mapping, and other geospatial service disciplines believe the worst of the recession is in the past, but robust growth is not forecast for the new year. Here are a few highlights of the January 2012 results.
 
  • A majority of those polled believe all markets (federal, state, and local government and private/commercial) will be about the same in 2012 as they were in 2011.  RFPs from each market will remain unchanged, although some increase from private/commercial clients is expected.
  • 20% of those polled expect their firm’s revenues to increase in 2012 over 2011.  Most expect revenues to remain flat, while a small group anticipates a decline.
  • When asked about changes in their workforce in the last three months of 2011, 17% said there had been a decline, 44% said it had stayed the same, and 40% had an increase (these figures don’t total to 100 due to rounding).
  • 70% of firms are currently operating below capacity.
While markets are not currently robust, new technologies and applications are exploding. At 2011 conferences, sessions covered numerous new ways for geospatial firms to collect, process, and apply data.  These included unmanned aerial systems/vehicles (UAS/UAV), cloud computing, building information models (BIM), GPS/INS, ground-based lidar, and mobile mapping. 
 
Despite these new technology opportunities, the MAPPS economic survey showed that only 32% of service-firm principals expect investment in new equipment (hardware, software, and other capital equipment) to increase in 2012 over purchases in 2011; 48% expect such outlays to be the same in 2012 compared to 2011; and 20% will invest less.
 

Policy Issues

Geospatial firms also face a mixed bag on the policy front. Numerous issues affecting the profession are being debated in the nation’s capital. 

Taxes:
Congress repealed the 3% withholding on revenue on government contracts that had been enacted and slated to go into effect. President Obama signed the bill on November 21, following passage of the measure by an overwhelming vote in the House and Senate. 
 
Another tax threat, particularly to firms that own and operate aircraft for data acquisition, was the President’s proposal to slow and lengthen depreciation schedules for business-owned aircraft. While touted as eliminating a tax loophole for corporate executives’ jets, the proposal would also have adversely affected small businesses, including aerial imagery and geospatial-data-collection operators.
 
Moreover, the President’s Plan for Economic Growth and Deficit Reduction included a proposed $100-per-flight fee for air traffic control services. This would have presented a double-whammy on the aerial survey community. Congress adopted neither in 2011.
 
Lidar: Firms providing aerial lidar are being confronted by threats from Congress and the FAA due to inconsistencies among and within several offices and programs in the FAA. There has been considerable concern regarding the use of consumer-grade laser pointers in a manner that disrupts or threatens the safe operation of aircraft. Legislation before Congress (and current law and regulation) could define lidar as a laser pointer, resulting in a criminal offense if pointed at or in the flight path of another aircraft. 
 
On August 16, 2011 FAA acting chief counsel Marc L. Warren wrote a letter to Rep. Thomas E. Petri (R-WI), chairman, Subcommittee on Aviation, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, stating that “a laser strike, including one by lidar, that does not interfere with the crewmember because it causes no distraction or impairment would not create a violation of” federal regulations.
 
Nevertheless, in June 2011, FAA field staff began to use the newly updated Order 8900.1 CHG 159 as a means of enforcing field reviews of both rotorcraft (helicopters) and normal (fixed-wing) aircraft that have lidar unit installations. FAA field staff has forced firms to ground their aircraft while reviewing 8900.1 to determine if the operators were compliant with the safe use of lidar sensors. These delays interrupted services to clients, and opportunities to acquire data were lost, costing firms time and money.
 
No tests, evaluations, or occurrences have ever found an aerial lidar installation and operation to be unsafe or that lidar operations threaten, disrupt, or impair the crew of aircraft.  While the FAA general counsel has found lidar to be safe, another office of the same agency is taking steps to restrict the technology. MAPPS is requesting that FAA review its policies, regulations, and activities so that a consistent program and procedure is in place that permits the safe operation of lidar in the United States.
 
Prison Industry Competition: For several years, federal and state prisons have implemented GIS, CAD, scanning, and digitizing operations inside of prisons, using inmate labor.  In December 2011, a bipartisan group of House members introduced the Federal Prison Industries Competition in Contracting Act of 2011.
 
This Act includes two provisions significant to geospatial firms. First, the bill prohibits agencies from specifying FPI or its products as a source in any federal agency synopsis/solicitation. There have been incidents where architect-engineer contracts have required the A/E firm to specify a FPI product, such as a modular furniture system, in its designs.
 
Most importantly, the bill prohibits FPI and its inmate workers from having access to a variety of geospatial information about individual citizens’ property or critical infrastructure location.  Specifically, it bans FPI from providing “a service in which an inmate worker has access to personal or financial information about individual private citizens, including information relating to such person’s real property, however described, without giving prior notice to such persons or class of persons to the greatest extent practicable: geographic data regarding the location of surface and subsurface infrastructure providing communications, water and electrical power distribution, pipelines for the distribution of natural gas, bulk petroleum products and other commodities, and other utilities, or data that is classified.” This provision would prohibit FPI from engaging in most, if not all, geospatial activities.
 
With unemployment continuing at dangerously high levels, 2012 may be the year Congress enacts the prison industry reform bill that has support from republicans and democrats, business and labor.
 
FEMA flood mapping: The House has included a provision for the collection of vertical positioning data for flood insurance rate maps produced by FEMA, the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2011. The bill passed the House in July, and in September the Senate Banking Committee reported a flood insurance bill, but it has yet to be assigned a number or been scheduled for full Senate action.
 
Infrastructure: Infrastructure legislation—including legislation affecting highways, airports, water and wastewater—and other public works that create a demand for surveying and mapping are overdue in Congress. MAPPS, ACSM, and other design and construction-related groups have called on Congress to pass these bills to create immediate jobs and rebuild the country.  The groups believe, for every $1 billion invested in nonresidential design and construction, $3.4 billion would be added to the gross domestic product, $1.1 billion to personal earnings, and 28,500 full-time jobs would be created or sustained, providing an additional $2.35 billion in indirect benefits to the economy.
 
Geolocation data and privacy: Several bills introduced in Congress seek to curtail information about citizen privacy related to online and mobile transactions and activities.  Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report, "Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change," proposing that firms engaged in collection, sharing, or use of "precise geolocation data" about a citizen be required to obtain “affirmative express consent” or advance approval of each such citizen. A final regulation, originally due before the end of 2011, will be issued soon and is expected to exempt surveying, mapping, and related activities.   Similar privacy bills are pending in several state legislatures.
 
LightSquared: The “megabus” appropriations bill enacted in December to fund dozens of federal agencies through September 30, 2012 included a provision that prevents the FCC from expending funds to approve the application of LightSquared until the GPS interference is settled, and thereby not negatively impacting private geospatial firms and other GPS users. The 2012 Defense department authorization bill also restricted any LightSquared action that would jeopardize military use of GPS.  Final resolution of the LightSquared issue may occur in 2012.
 
Federal geospatial coordination: The federal government’s governance and coordination will be addressed in 2012.  The Government Accountability Office is beginning a review of how Uncle Sam handles spatial data activities, and the National Geospatial Advisory Committee is making recommendations to the Federal Geographic Data Committee. Additionally, President Obama has announced a reorganization of trade, commerce, and economic agencies that will revamp the Department of Commerce.  Included in the President’s proposal is the transfer of NOAA to the Department of the Interior. This raises a series of interesting questions for the geospatial community.
 
The National Geodetic Survey (NGS) interfaces with virtually every surveying and mapping practitioner. All the prime contractors (and some subcontractors) on NOAA’s shoreline mapping program are MAPPS member firms.  Virtually every prime contractor (and numerous subcontractors) in NOAA’s hydrographic survey program is a MAPPS member firm. The work done at NOAA’s Coastal Services Center in Charleston, South Carolina, is also accomplished through MAPPS member firms as prime and sub contractors. The Office of Space Commercialization, once a separate entity in Commerce, was merged into NOAA during the Bush administration. Firms that operate high-resolution, commercial, remote sensing satellites are licensed by NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service through NOAA's Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office, and it is the home of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing.
 
If NOAA is moved to the Department of the Interior, should it be part of USGS or be a distinct entity within the department? Should all the mapping, charting, geodesy, remote sensing, and geospatial activities of NOAA be integrated with and currently spread among various agencies (USGS, BLM, NPS, FWS, and others) into a consolidated geospatial bureau reporting directly to the Secretary of the Interior?
 
NOAA operates the NOAA Corps, a uniformed military-like workforce with officers and a personnel system that differs from regular civil service. The largest portion of the NOAA Corps officers is in the mapping, charting, and geodesy activities of NOAA. Will the NOAA Corps be dismantled under the reorganization plan? 
 
Terminating the NOAA Corps was proposed by then-Vice President Al Gore in his “Reinventing Government” program, but opposition by NOAA Corps officers and their families forced the idea to be dropped.  Imposing the NOAA Corps on the Interior Department would be a difficult personnel transition, either by dismantling the Corps and ingesting it into the civilian personnel system or asking Interior to simply assume responsibility for management of the NOAA Corps.
 
The NESDIS program, which licenses high-resolution, commercial, remote sensing satellites systems, may not belong in Interior. This is a regulatory and business promotion activity. When the licensing of commercial, satellite, remote sensing systems was begun during the Clinton administration, there was a heated debate over whether the licensing agency should be in the State or Commerce Department. Debaters feared there would be too much concern over foreign policy issues if this office were in State, resulting in too much regulation and restriction on the satellite operators. Should this activity move to Interior, which is not a regulatory or business promotion agency, or remain with the renamed Department of Commerce?
 
When legislation to dismantle the Department of Commerce was prominent in Congress in the mid-1990s, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) introduced a bill that would have transferred the mapping, charting, and geodesy functions to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The bill also provided that “the Secretary of the Army, acting through the Chief of Engineers of Army Corps of Engineers, shall terminate any functions transferred … that are performed by the private sector or obtain by contract from the private sector those functions that are commercial in nature and are necessary to carry out inherently governmental functions.”  Does the Corps of Engineers make more sense as a new home for the NOS functions of NOAA? 
 
There are reasons why such a transfer is worth consideration.
 
Some NOAA and Corps of Engineers programs are quite similar. NOAA conducts hydrographic surveys and publishes charts on the coasts, shorelines, and Great Lakes. The Corps of Engineers conducts hydrographic surveys and publishes charts of the inland waterway system. While accurate data is not presently available, at the time of the introduction of Rep. Royce’s bill, the Corps of Engineers had more geodesists on staff than NOAA, even though NOAA operates the NGS. The Corps is the most experienced procurer of mapping, charting, and geodesy services in the federal government. The Corps has literally written the book (actually a manual) on the Brooks Act and QBS contracting and teaches a course for government officials. Several NOAA personnel who award contracts for shoreline mapping, hydrographic surveys, and the CSC have taken the Corps’ course, as have those in USGS. While both NOAA and USGS have become adept at using QBS, the depth and breadth of the Corps of Engineers is unsurpassed in the federal government. Finally, integrating the NOAA Corps into the military personnel system already in place in the Army would be significantly easier than integrating or managing the NOAA Corps in the Interior Department. 
 
The reorganization plan must be approved by Congress. There will be an opportunity for the geospatial community’s voice to be heard.

 
John M. Palatiello is executive director of MAPPS.
 

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