Most everyone is aware of the role rescue teams, relief workers and medical experts are playing in Haitian relief efforts. They are leading search and rescue efforts and providing water, food and shelter to the homeless and needed medical care to the injured. Soon they will be helping to rebuild Port-au-Prince and nearby communities devastated by the earthquake.

However, most are unaware of the critical role that the spatial technology industry is also playing. Spatial data — or, more generally, location data — are essential to those on the ground in Haiti as well as those coordinating relief efforts around the world. Government agencies and private companies have donated millions of dollars worth of location data and data products — including satellite imagery, up-to-date maps, and related software and hardware, such as GPS devices — to collect, process and display the vast amounts of location data that are now essential in any relief effort. This work is being led behind the scenes by men and women who have volunteered their time and expertise to ensure the timely production and delivery of these products and services.

A number of government agencies have provided important information and products. For example, in the United States, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has contributed unclassified imagery and graphic representations and damage assessments of major infrastructure, including roads, airports, hospitals, police and fire stations and schools. In addition, immediately following the earthquake, the Defense Logistics Agency sent 38,000 maps overnight to military units on the scene and en route to Haiti. In the United Kingdom, the Ordnance Survey has people working at MapAction, a U.K.-based charity that supports mapping for humanitarian needs.

Private companies also have made significant contributions to the relief efforts. Google displayed newly collected satellite imagery in a special Google Earth layer that anyone with a Web browser could access. Commercial satellite companies DigitalGlobe and GeoEye (United States), Spot Image (France) and RapidEye (Germany) have provided imagery and radar data of hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of Haiti to help assess the location and extent of the damage. ESRI has more than two dozen people working on relief efforts, collecting and publishing data on the Web, including four people rotating around the clock at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) producing and analyzing maps. Volunteers from around the world are creating maps for first responders from satellite imagery using tools from OpenStreetMap and Google Map Maker. FortiusOne is supporting these volunteer efforts on three continents. In addition, it has provided valuable data on roads, population, damage, hospitals and medical camps for use in maps by U.S. Southern Command. Similarly, East View Cartographic has prepared specialized maps for United Nations personnel in Haiti. Global Relief Technologies produced thumb drives loaded with new satellite imagery that deploying military personnel could take with them, and AEgis Technologies is distributing a free 3D database of Haiti to agencies around the world.

The work in Haiti is just one example of the growing importance of location data in a wide variety of commercial, governmental and societal applications. Location data support your satellite navigation device and also are vital in homeland security. They are a critical component in both monitoring climate change and finding alternative energy resources. Location data are being used by the U.S. government to track spending of stimulus funds as well as to support deployment of broadband. Researchers are using GPS devices to determine what triggers asthma attacks, and parents use them to monitor their children’s activities. Location data are of vital importance in tracking the outbreak of a pandemic and in fighting wild fires. They allow friends to get together through social networking sites and advertisers to tailor their messages to the most local level. The number of uses will undoubtedly grow as mobile devices become more commonplace and the cost for collecting and transferring data decreases.

However, because spatial technology is such a powerful tool and applications using location data are beginning to penetrate consumer markets, some policymakers have expressed concerns. For example, some worry that a broad set of location data may be a national security risk. Others are worried that the technology will be used in ways that may result in a loss of personal privacy. In addition, concerns over such issues as intellectual property rights and potential liability limit the sharing of data by government organizations, a major source of baseline location data.

Such concerns are having a negative impact on the collection, use and sharing of location data around the world. If this trend continues, this important technology will not be fully utilized. Therefore, it is imperative that governments commit to a few fundamental principles with respect to location data.

  • Collection of location data by the private sector should be actively encouraged.

Historically, location data were collected by governments. However, as a result of technological improvements — such as increases in computer power, faster transmission speeds of digital data and the introduction of lower-cost mobile platforms and sensors — commercial entities and individuals are playing an increasingly important role in these efforts. Unfortunately, governments worldwide continue to restrict a private company’s ability to collect location data. For example, the U.S. government has placed restrictions on the ability of private companies to collect the highest-quality satellite imagery possible due to perceived national security concerns. It also effectively restricts the types of sensors that a private company can use to collect data. In China, there are restrictions on the ability of foreigners to provide mapping and surveying — these activities are controlled by government.

Such restrictions are shortsighted and do not fully take into account the opportunity cost associated with uncollected data. History has shown there is an increase in commercial and societal benefits as new types of location data become available. For example, the introduction of satellite navigation devices for consumer applications is directly related to former President Bill Clinton’s decision to turn off GPS selective availability in 2000. Similarly, the growth of Google Earth and Web-based mapping services are due in large part to the development of a commercial satellite imagery industry. These in turn spawned the businesses and related applications that have become so important in the Haiti relief efforts. In fact, if more location data had been available, relief workers might have been able to respond more quickly and efficiently.

  • Policymakers should avoid a “rush to regulate” the use of location data.

As spatial technology becomes more common, policymakers inevitably will be tempted to regulate its use. However, policymakers should tread slowly, as premature regulation is likely to prevent the technology from reaching its full potential and may push promising technologies offshore. A good example of this is an attempt early in 2009 by California Assemblyman Joel Anderson to regulate the availability of high-resolution overhead imagery on the Internet. He believed that only terrorists benefited from such high-quality images. Fortunately, Anderson withdrew his proposed legislation after much pressure. Ironically, a few months later, a local newspaper disclosed how towns near his district were using high-quality imagery to notify citizens that brush near their homes increased the potential for wildfire damage. Such an application might not have been possible if the proposed legislation had become law.

In India, there are a variety of measures that effectively limit the access to foreign-produced maps and satellite imagery, apparently due to national security concerns as well as an effort to protect local industry from foreign competition. However, the result is that India’s citizens do not have access to the full range of data products that they could use to produce powerful tools for economic and societal development. Similarly, Google and others continue to face obstacles from governments around the world in trying to display street-level imagery to complement their mapping and other products.

Use restrictions inevitably result in less data being available. Therefore, any attempt to regulate the use of location data should be narrowly tailored. In addition, policymakers should consider not just the issue they are attempting to address, but any unintended consequences of their actions. They also should factor in the opportunity cost associated with the lack of access to such data — for example, imagine how valuable up-to-date street-level imagery of an area would be to relief workers in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

  • Government agencies at all levels must share their location data assets.

Around the world, government agencies at all levels collect and retain vast quantities of location data in providing services to their citizens. In the United States, the federal government maintains data on natural resources, state governments collect data on their roads and bridges, and local governments collect real property data. In fact, there is growing consensus on the value in sharing of data between government agencies through such mechanisms as a national spatial data infrastructure. For example, some believe that the collapse of the real estate market could have been better predicted if relevant location data had been shared between government agencies.

Many millions of dollars are spent annually on the technology that allows for the sharing of location data between agencies. In addition, many countries have implemented laws and regulations requiring agencies to share data. Despite this effort, there is still a tremendous resistance to the sharing of such data at the operational level.

Legal and policy concerns are frequently given as reasons that data are not shared. For example, many agencies cite concerns about protecting intellectual property rights in the data as a reason they limit data sharing. They also claim that sharing spatial data may violate the privacy of their constituents or risk national security. In addition, government lawyers often state that by sharing their location data they are exposing their agency to potential liability.

Valid legal and policy concerns must be identified and, when necessary, addressed. However, senior government officials also must recognize the value of their data assets and force their agencies to comply with government rules and regulations to the fullest extent possible. Legal counsel must find practical solutions to legitimate concerns and not use these concerns as a way to protect bureaucratic turf. Every effort must be made to share data, both with other government organizations and when appropriate, with private companies. The cost of not sharing becomes greater each day.

In our era of instant mapping and Google Earth, it can be hard to understand a time when people had no clear concept of the planet on which they stood. In a relatively short period of time, we have seen an explosion of potential uses for location data, including disaster relief and homeland security, location-based services and social networking, and the monitoring of climate change and the spread of infectious diseases. Policymakers around the globe can further its tremendous potential by eliminating restrictions on collecting and disseminating location data, avoiding a rush to regulate its use and ensuring the sharing of spatial data assets by government agencies.


Kevin Pomfret is executive director of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy and a partner at the law firm of LeClairRyan.