Open Memorandum Concerning NGA’s Federal Register Announcement To Withdraw Aeronautical Products (Maps, Charts and Associated Data) from Public Access
MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota, USA – January 10, 2005 – The US Department of Defense’s (DoD) primary producer of maps, charts and related products, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), has proposed that, effective October 2005, all of its aeronautical products should be withdrawn from public access. (Original notice can be found at: http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/06jun20041800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2004/04-25631.htm) This action would cover thousands of maps and charts, as well digital geospatial data.
The aeronautical products covered by this action are widely held in US academic and public libraries, and are also sold by the private sector in raw and value-added formats to numerous end-users. Many users value these products not so much for the unique aeronautical information contained therein, but for the fact that these products provide excellent topographic maps offering global coverage in the English language, are affordable, and are generally not subject to copyright restrictions.
NGA has cited a handful of reasons for why the aeronautical products should be withdrawn from public access which boil down to three broad types:
- Commerical concerns
- Terrorisim concerns
- Data integrity concerns
None of the multiple rationales offered by NGA for public withdrawal of its products are sufficient to justify the proposed action but they are not persuasive collectively either. In fact, the driving force for NGA’s proposal is the challenge of international copyright in the digital age as its products are moving from separate paper charts to integrated global databases. Thus far NGA has demonstrated institutional inflexibility and unwillingness to do the necessary work to keep its products in the public domain. Instead they find it easier simply to remove public access.
Taken to its logical conclusion, since all of NGA’s digital databases are rapidly becoming global products, this approach ensures that all NGA products will soon be removed from the US public because of concerns with copyrighted foreign data, regardless of the amount of such data. What NGA has not yet tried, but very much needs to if its global products are to remain accessible to the US public, is to consider other alternatives to total public withdrawal.
The first option is to redact its digital products and issue public versions. This is not a difficult proposition, either from the production or distribution perspective. Moreover, sooner or later NGA will be forced to do this out of necessity as it shares its global databases with military and other users outside of the DoD.
Another alternative is to copyright various NGA products. This has already been done for decades with UK-produced paper aeronautical charts (JOG-A, TPC, and ONC). The charts may be ordered from FAA, but the US public cannot copy them for commercial use without seeking the copyright permission or licensing from the British authorities. Virtually every member of the public, including librarians, would consider copyrighted US government data to be a lesser evil than withdrawn or inaccessible data.
As NGA’s products increasingly become massive digital global databases, the US public is being threatened with losing any access at all to some of the world’s most amazing geospatial creations. “Going digital” and “going global” should not be equated with “going inaccessible” but that is where current NGA policies are taking us.
It is a bad idea for NGA to turn off public access to its global databases at a time when public demand is steadily rising. Terrorism and hacking threats may be cited as reasons for doing so, but in fact it is the more complicated commercial issues of copyright and licensing that are driving the Federal Register announcement. In avoiding coming to terms with the reality of global digital products meeting international copyright issues, NGA officials are taking the easy way out. They are also incorrect in claiming that their only responsibility is to DoD end users. They have a responsibility to the entire US public, and on the whole a very honorable tradition of upholding that responsibility by providing us with good maps in English on a global basis, for a reasonable price and at very little trouble to themselves. Shirking this responsibility due to bureaucratic inertia is bad enough; hiding behind the terrorist/hacker threat is ominous and opens new avenues for the denial of further government data.
The NGA leadership needs to take these issues into consideration and then do the right thing: rescind the Federal Register announcement, tackle the foreign copyright challenges head-on, and get on with the issue of making its global digital databases more open, not less open.
About East View
East View was founded in 1989 and is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. East View is comprised of East View Information Services (www.eastview.com), East View Geospatial (www.geospatial.com) and East View Map Link (www.evmaplink.com). East View maintains thousands of supplier/publisher relationships throughout the world for maps and geospatial data and Russian, Arabic and Chinese-produced social and hard science content. East View manages a data center, library and warehouse in Minneapolis where it hosts and stores dozens of foreign language databases, hundreds of thousands of maps and atlases and millions of geospatial, Russian, Chinese and Arabic metadata records. Uncommon Information. Extraordinary Places. East View.