Thursday, March 11, 2010

How to Build a Spatial Law and Policy Community?

Over the past two months, I have had occasion to consider the legal and policy issues associated with how spatial data is collected, used and/or distributed by a variety of spatial technologies and for a number of different applications. For example, I recently attended the International Commercial Remote Sensing Symposium, the ESRI Federal User's conference, and a discussion of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Homeland Security Infrastructure Protection (HSIP) program. In addition, over that same period I participated in a board meeting of the Open Geospatial Consortium, and a conference call on data sharing for the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). I also counseled clients in a number of commercial transactions and have been preparing a series of talks on legal and policy issues associated with spatial data infrastructures (SDI).

This process has further strengthened my belief that the fundamental legal and policy challenges associated with the collection, use and distribution of spatial data are universal. That is, the GIS coordinator for a small town or city, faces the same issues as the in-house legal counsel at a commercial satellite imaging company or a social networking company and the international climate change expert attempting to access global environmental data. These issues include intellectual property rights, licensing, national security, data quality/liability and privacy. The relative importance of these issues may vary, depending upon what role an organization plays in the process and the type of issue being addressed. However, the core set of issues are the same.

Unfortunately, I do not think that many of those in these positions see themselves as being part of a broader community of spatial law and policy professionals. Instead, they believe they are dealing with a set of issues unique to their business or agency or issue. This view, while understandable, contributes to the lack of a consistent and transparent legal and policy framework for spatial data. In fact, one can argue that such a framework is not possible until the broader community is identified and energized. Which raises the question, is such a community possible, and if so, how can it be developed?


John S Cook said...

I believe you. I work full time on research that tries to make the points you are making.

Spatial information is usually public sector information or PSI; and decisions on access, licensing, liability and pricing need to be seen in the context of PSI quite generally. Understanding publicly funded information is immensely complex, for much of it gives security when people can take it for granted and do not need to question how it happens.

However, there is - as they say - a time and place for everything and the underpinning that spatio-temporal information gives to organising information quite generally also needs to be understood if there is to be sensible spatial information investments.

Kevin said...

The spatial community in Australia is quite strong and active. Do you find that there are enough lawyers that understand the technology and the issues involved? (I do know that Dr. George Cho from the University of Canberra is an expert in these matters.) Are there others?

John said...

I believe these issues should be highlighted as a core part of university curriculum for students of the spatial sciences. Most academic programs focus almost exclusively on software proficiency and spatial analysis. Though skills in both are vital, it’s typically the politics behind the effective application of GIS that tasks professionals in the sector rather than the technology itself. Universities prepare graduates for work in the private sector and academia but they do a poor job readying future professionals for the government sector, where we’re often called upon to play the part of intermediary. Providing us with an understanding of the legal framework and policies associated with spatial technologies would be a step in the right direction.

Kevin said...


I agree with your suggestion. I have started teaching a course on this subject and I know of a couple of similar courses offered, but generally I do not believe that enough attention is paid to these matters. One of the reasons however is that the discipline itself is still developing, so it is very difficult to pull together the necessary materials.

Ed said...

So where does the spatial policy developer/analyst find the additional time to invest in a community policy development effort? I am running full speed and cannot keep up with my existing commitments at the local, state, and national levels!

That said, the community must form. It is the how, and not the what, when or why that is our difficulty. Social networking can carry us only so far.

Kevin said...

Someone left an interesting comment about efforts in the state of Indiana to identify all of the laws and policies that might impact spatial technology in that state. Unfortunately, I rejected (instead of accepting) that comment by mistake. I apologize. Please resend that comment if possible. Thanks. KDP

ianbatley said...

I teach a subject at the Canberra Institute of Technology in Australia that includes a competency "Administrative and legal requirements for data storage are complied with and recorded".

Unfortunately, that is only one component of the whole subject, but at least it is taught to first year students so it raises their understanding early in their career.