'Imagery for the Nation' as Timely as Ever

By Bert Granberg  |  September 24, 2018

Aerial photography is an incredibly valuable resource to a broad set of uses in the business, government, and research sectors. An aerial view, whether from a satellite or an airborne camera, provides excellent situational awareness, for among other things:

  • Responding to a crisis - like 911 centers coordinating response to everyday emergencies or coordination for wildfires, flooding, and hurricanes
  • Informing real-time consumer decisions and organizational operations - everything from tourism to package delivery
  • Planning for the future - like siting and designing new developments and transportation projects
  • Building map-based datasets of infrastructure and natural assets - to better inventory and analyze how urban and natural systems perform
  • Providing a historical record over time - for dispute resolution and understanding development and change patterns

While it is expensive to acquire, it is practically indisputable that the immense value of accessible, up-to-date, and high-resolution aerial photography dwarfs the costs to capture and distribute the imagery.

So what's the problem? In a nutshell, there's no national model in place to efficiently fund, collect, and provide access to this highly desirable resource, that - unlike most types of products - actually becomes more valuable the more it is put to use.

This means that only the most motivated will pay for aerial photography and only for coverage of their immediate area of interest. These individual acquisitions by firms and agencies result in higher costs, varying quality, duplication of effort, and a patchwork of products, and often difficult or restricted access to the information that so many value.

If aerial photography data is shared openly, funding partners tend to be reluctant or scarce as their is no incentive other than goodwill to contribute to its cost. If aerial photography is resold to cover its costs, then it is likely to be under-consumed and the overall return on the investment is likely to be far lower. It is generally accepted by most economists that this is precisely the type of situation where government should organize and fund a solution.

Imagery for the Nation, or IFTN for short, is an ambitious vision, formulated by NSGIC originally in 2004, to provide a government funded aerial photography collection initiative, using private sector expertise to perform the work. IFTN articulated a sustainable and flexible imagery program to best meet the diverse needs of our nation. It attempts to balance the need for higher resolution and more frequent aerial photography in areas of urban and economic intensity and lower resolution but consistent collection in other areas of the country.

To date, a portion of the IFTN vision has been implemented in the form of the USDA's National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP), which provides aerial photography for all but Alaska and Hawaii at 1 meter (39 inch) pixel resolution on a 2-3 year cycle. That's a good start, but the NAIP program does not meet the need for high resolution imagery in urban areas where 6 inch pixels or better (and imagery captured when leaves are off the trees) are needed for activities such as transportation and utility infrastructure mapping. Also, the future of the NAIP program was recently thrown into doubt when federal funding partners, just as economists would predict, were not ponying up their committed fair share to keep the NAIP program solvent.

NAIP's issues pale in comparison to the ongoing, unmet needs for high resolution imagery. The ‘133 Cities Program,’ an innovative high resolution imagery partnership between the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the USGS, inexplicably broke down in 2014, just when it was gaining traction. While a smattering of high resolution offerings exist in individual states - including public domain and licensed imagery programs - and through private providers, no formal program exists to provide consistent, dependably provided high resolution aerial photography coverage for most states. Whether it is an elections office keeping voting precinct lines from cutting across homes, or a 911 center directing police, fire, or EMS resources, or the design/build of a multi-million dollar road project, it's critical to outcomes and efficiency that those involved have the best supporting contextual information at hand.

Sadly, almost 15 years later, IFTN remains a great, impactful concept still looking for effective leadership at the national level to finalize program requirements, formalize funding commitments, and move forward with an innovative procurement strategy building on the strength of existing, private technical expertise and resources. With the continuously expanding impact of geographic information technologies, the benefit that would result from a successfully executed IFTN initiative continues to grow - IFTN is an idea that has become even more compelling over the years. It remains a sure bet win, waiting on the sideline for the coach to send it into the game.

And, there’s a glimmer of hope that IFTN could actually get back on the right track with last week’s first ever National Imagery Summit, organized by the Federal Geographic Data Committee. On behalf of NSGIC, Board President Andy Rowan (NJ) was at the summit advocating for the importance and elegance on the IFTN vision by providing the perspective of states and NSGIC’s broader membership.