Proposed Geospatial User Fee

A user’s fee could provide sustained funding for national geospatial data, but how?

By Alan Mikuni

Everyone benefits in some way from geospatial data, often without knowing what geospatial data is or to what great degree they’re benefitting from it. There are parallels between geospatial data and GPS: the end use is essentially free and ubiquitous, and compound benefits are mostly taken for granted.

But why is such a vital resource as national-coverage geospatial data subject to funding that works like an Easter egg hunt? Data is often commissioned ad hoc, in reaction to acute needs, and with little or no comprehensive plans to develop, fund, update, or maintain. Imagine how much more beneficial such resources could be if these inconsistencies were removed.

The concept of a geospatial user fee, collected into and disseminated from a trust fund, is being developed by a working group of the Management Association of Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS). The trust fund will, theoretically, provide an additional source of revenue to supplement federal appropriations for geospatial contracts for national-scale, national-scope, national-coverage geospatial data sets. In a time of perceived or real public suspicion about anything that appears to be a new tax, why even consider this geospatial user fee?   

A National Geospatial Data Infrastructure

First, it must be assumed that the focus of this attention, national geospatial data and related activities, is such a significant national infrastructure asset that efforts to continue acquiring and maintaining the asset are worth supporting. Estimates vary, but for argument’s sake, let’s say that 75% of the American economy in some way depends on accurate and up-to-date geospatial data. That, to me, is significant enough to warrant support.

Next, it is widely recognized that conventional national-level funding methods, like annual federal agency budget requests and subsequent congressional authorizations and appropriations for geospatial data and programs, are inadequate to keep pace with the demands of the user community for current and accurate geospatial data. These production and maintenance efforts, conducted largely by the private sector through federal geospatial contracts, are critical for the nation’s economy.  On-going efforts to justify and request additional appropriations or to reinvigorate or re-engineer the federal budgetary processes for geospatial activities have been unsuccessful.  Most federal agencies are now making their national geospatial data sets available at no- or low-cost, so having consumers now pay for the purchase of these data (or the cost to produce them) would not be an economically (or legally) viable strategy. 

However, as these data sets age and become less timely and less accurate (as the technology and the apps to use these data become more sophisticated), the value of these data will continue to diminish relative to the expectations of the user community. Investments must be made in maintaining the utility of these national datasets, and the federal budget processes are not doing the job. A conceivably huge, sustained level of financial support required for the nation’s geospatial infrastructure continues to elude us. An alternative must be sought.

Why not have the users of the national datasets contribute small, individual fees that will accumulate into a larger trust fund needed for the national datasets: a Geospatial User Fee and Trust Fund? Rather than “buying” a specific data set, the citizens paying these user fees are contributing to the maintenance of all national geospatial data sets and supporting all geospatial activities.  The concept of a user fee is not new. 

Successful Examples

Since 1937, hunters and gun enthusiasts nationwide have been paying a federal excise tax/surcharge (enacted by the Pittman-Robertson Act) when they purchase firearms and ammunition and, more recently, archery equipment.  The accumulated funds, held in trust by the Department of the Interior, support federal and state wildlife restoration and education programs.  Users of firearms and archery equipment pay a user fee to support government programs that benefit them.The Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund (enacted by the combined Wallop-Breaux Act and the Dingell-Johnson Act) is funded through user fees collected from the purchasers of motorboat fuels and accessories and of sport fishing equipment and accessories.  The trust fund provides funds for fisheries and habitat restoration, boating safety, and related programs at the federal and local levels. These enthusiasts pay a user fee to support programs that benefit them.

Owners and operators of motor vehicles that ride on the nation’s highways pay a tax on gasoline that they purchase to operate their motor vehicles and on purchases of heavy vehicles.  These monies accumulate in the Highway Trust Fund and are used in the maintenance of the roadways.  The purchasers of the gasoline/users of the highways pay a user fee to support programs that benefit them.

Learning from Models

How can the users of geospatial data benefit from such a user fee? Those who use map data, location data, geospatial technologies, etc., can be assessed a “user fee” so that the funds accumulated in a trust fund can be expended on ensuring the continued quality and quantity of the nation’s geospatial data.  By increasing the amount of funding available for all the geospatial activities that help to build and maintain the national spatial data infrastructure, the nation’s users of geospatial data and the economy will benefit.

Purchasers of geospatially-enabled consumer- or professional-grade electronics, such as GPS units, vehicle navigation systems, mobile phones, tablets, and the like, would pay a very small surcharge, e.g., several fractions of a percent, which in aggregate over several hundreds of millions of transactions would accumulate in the trust fund. A similar charge can be assessed as part of the monthly “subscription” fees paid for maintenance and use of geospatial data sets downloaded onto these systems, also accumulating in the trust fund.  However, as much of the map data downloaded onto these devices will soon reside in “the cloud,” a user fee model to take advantage of this new technological advance must be devised.

Once collected in the trust fund, the monies would be made accessible for combining with federal agencies’ appropriated funds for contracts for the acquisition of geospatial data and provision of geospatial services.  The mechanics of merging trust fund monies and federal appropriations have been long-practiced through implementation of procedures to expend funds generated by the Pittman-Robertson Act, Wallop-Breaux Act, Dingell-Johnson Act, and the Highway Trust Fund, so one question that immediately comes to mind is: “Who manages the fund?”

One suggestion would be to use the U.S. Geological Survey and its geospatial liaison network.  These USGS staff, located in each state, work tirelessly to engage local geospatial professionals at all levels of government in ensuring that these important tasks are exercised most efficiently: geospatial-data requirements-gathering processes, leveraging of available partner funds, and identification of and funding for the appropriate procurement or acquisition vehicles to meet those requirements.

The USGS meets regularly to evaluate these geospatial requirements from all across the United States and to assign priorities for procurement of the geospatial products and services using its meager budget allocations and the Geospatial Products and Services Contract or other local or partner-specific contracts. Imagine the benefit to the nation of this already fully functional, continuously monitored, and multi-jurisdictional operation with access to a substantially larger pool of geospatial funding!

The Challenges

Presuming the geospatial community agrees in concept with the notion of a geospatial user fee and trust fund, much remains to be determined before such an endeavor can be undertaken. The MAPPS Working Group has been meeting since May 2012 and has spent the majority of its time identifying the major components of what must be considered as this initiative moves forward.  These components are listed here in the form of questions that will be addressed in the next several months. 
Could the geospatial community recommend:
  • an alternative if we agree that current funding models won’t meet the future needs of the geospatial community;
  • a source of funding if we agree that an alternative funding model for geospatial activities is needed;
  • how large the annual funding “pot” needs to be to support national-scope geospatial activities (read J.B. Byrd in the June 2012 issue of Professional Surveyor Magazine);
  • an array of commodities or activities on which the user fee is assessed;
  • who pays the user fee;
  • who collects the user fee;
  • where the revenue from collecting the user fee accumulates (repository);
  • who establishes the funding repository and who manages it;
  • who manages the requirements-gathering, priority-setting, and allocation process for these geospatial funds (see previous suggestion);
  • what methodologies, e.g., contracts, agreements, etc., will be funded to support geospatial activities;
  • who monitors the expenditure and use of the funds; and
  • who monitors the outcomes of the expenditures?
Could the geospatial community:
  • determine if existing state and local government models already align with our goals;
  • determine if there are non-governmental, tax-exempt, or other-for-profit models that already align with our goals;
  • develop adequate safeguards to avoid unintended consequences of making available a new, conceivably large source of funding support for geospatial activities, e.g., commoditization of professional services; and
  • recommend beneficiary national-scope geospatial activities (programs, mission activities, projects, products, etc.)?

Next Steps

These questions are only scratching the surface of the myriad of details that must be addressed and resolved before a concerted effort can begin, which must later include legislative action. The MAPPS Working Group will continue to meet, and follow-up actions will include vetting with the MAPPS leadership and membership and with other geospatial organizations, such as the Coalition of Geospatial Organizations (COGO).  If you have questions, comments, or suggestions about other areas that need to be addressed, please contact me,

Alan Mikuni is chair of the MAPPS Working Group on Geospatial User Fees and Trust Fund.

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