Licensed Commercial Imagery as an Enterprise Resource: The Terms Matter!

By Bert Granberg | November 19, 2018

“Let’s get everyone working on the same map!”

This is a compelling, succinct goal that speaks to the value of taking an ‘enterprise-wide approach’ to acquiring GIS data resources, including high-resolution aerial photography. It’s a safe bet that the “on the same map” argument was part of the advocacy efforts of states that have successfully sought and received support to build public domain imagery programs.

“On the same map” is also a very relevant objective for states or regions (or even nations) considering a licensed imagery purchase from the emerging market of commercial aerial products. While public domain programs are a great goal, in recent years there has been more growth in the adoption of statewide licensed programs, perhaps because of lower, but not perfectly comparable costs. In a mature geospatial world, imagery is probably an open, public domain resource, but if you’re not there yet, a licensed product could be a good fit. 

Aerial imagery is critical information for a very diverse range of key work sectors. It’s used as a critical basic geographic reference, but also as a platform for creating and new map data of all kinds. Most of us remember when the originating map scale was always atop the importance list for selecting and using GIS data layers. Those days are mostly over thanks to the pervasive use of digital aerial photography as a base for digitizing new data, and of course, GPS and other field surveys. For this and other reasons, we should think of aerial imagery as an ‘information utility’, akin to how we view the National Weather Service. 

Several states, such as North Carolina and New York, benefit from state-led high-resolution imagery programs that distribute the resulting products free of charge across to a diverse user community. In these and similar states, the terms of use for the public domain aerial photography are trivial (maybe a resale prohibition or an ask for source attribution) and anyone can use the imagery, more or less without restriction. This goes a long way to satisfying “on the same map” desire.

Achieving “on the same map” with licensed commercial imagery is definitely doable, but it takes more effort, knowledge, and savvy on both sides of the procurement transaction. That is, both the public-sector purchasers and the private sector vendors need to cleverly maneuver in constructing licensing terms that produce the best, mutually beneficial outcome. In my experience, for a licensed imagery product to holds its own against traditional public domain models as an ‘enterprise-wide resource’, both parties need to be listening to one another’s concerns and to flexibly negotiate terms  If the terms are set in stone by someone unfamiliar with the geospatial field or local needs, it’s going to be hard to strike a worthwhile deal.

Here are a few of the notable considerations when evaluating potential commercial imagery licensing terms, which are just as, if not more important than per unit costs.

Who gets to use the imagery and how?

  • Is the license extensible to include use by all public sector partners? The list of partners to consider include:
Highest priority organizations:
  • State, county, city government
  • 911 centers, special districts, and regional government
  • Contractors performing work for state and local government
High priority organizations:
  • Tribal agencies
  • Federal partner agencies (especially DOI, DHS, and USDA agencies with local presence)
  • Your state’s 811 “Call Before You Dig” utility notification call center, which has similar, but preventative “call-take and dispatch” role to 911 communication centers
Other priority organizations
  • K-12 and higher ed classrooms and research (potentially both public and private, nonprofit)
  • Other ‘public’ utilities that those that rely on GIS and have a defined role in emergencies; these tend to be monopoly providers of electricity, natural gas, etc.
  • Other nonprofit entities that play an official role (perhaps those that play a role  called out in state statute) 

  • Does the license specify reasonable, non-burdensome terms for use of the imagery on printed materials and within public-facing web applications?

  • Does the license allow for on-premise use of the imagery (especially for 911 communication centers) and/or limited download of the data in jpg or png format? How about for map tiles that are sent to and cached for native and web apps on desktop and mobile devices?

  • Does the license provide for usage and archive rights to the imagery after the contract period is over?

  • What is the expected oversight and auditing regimen for users and usage?

Web Services Platform (a must!)

  • Will an accompanying web service be provided? Will it work for ESRI users and QGIS users (the OGC WMTS tile service works for both, but REST is ESRI only...WMS is less preferable for performance reasons but maybe the only ways for older software apps to use a web service).

  • Do you want to host the imagery web service on your infrastructure (expensive unless you’re doing it in the cloud) or do you want your vendor or another provider to do this? How will larger requests to the imagery service perform, say for large-format plots?

  • Can each user have an account or, often more preferably, can access be managed at the organization-wide level?

  • Do you want your staff to play a role in administering the individual and/or organizational user accounts? (including communications and technical assistance)

  • Will you have access to user or organization level usage and/or download statistics that track ‘take rate’ and ‘usage volume’? This data can be very useful in mobilizing partners to advocate or financially support the continuation of the program.

  • Do you need separate accounts to track service usage by web applications locked down to the referring domain? Will the imagery service work well within the ArcGIS Online environment? Remember that, for some reason, AGOL presents public-facing maps to Google search as “…” ignoring your organizations desired custom “” domain.

User Needs and Experience

  • What are the vendor’s stated and/or realistic plans for future acquisitions (schedule, resolution) and minimum purchase in area or dollars? Of course, evaluate your leaf-on/off concerns but also consider whether the frequency meets your needs, budget, and, especially for ‘subscription’ models, does the price for future flights reflect your own valuation?  

  • What will be the user experience for CAD software users? (and both meanings of the word CAD are relevant-- computer aided drafting/design like AutoCAD, Microstation, etc. for the engineering world and computer-aided dispatch for the 911 centers)

  • As updates become available do you have to pay extra for these? Will older versions of the imagery still be available for use? Can the flight dates for the imagery be easily communicated to users?

  • What coordinate system will the imagery services and/or downloadable files be in? This is mostly a moot point as reprojection on the fly is supported by many software platforms. But, keep in mind that if you go with the industry standard Web Mercator, you’re going to need to explain the use of geographic datum transformations to users so they can get the last few feet of horizontal accuracy when working in NAD83 and other non-WGS84 datums.

  • What is the stated and assessed (you should do this yourself) horizontal accuracy and how is this achieved (traditional ground control, image matching, or another method)?

  • Who will run the information campaign and portal that will inform and connect potential users with the new resource and basic information

Wow, that’s quite a list!  Certainly, many of the questions are worth considering for any imagery program, be it commercial or public domain. The public domain model is conceptually simpler and maybe that fact will rekindle the flame to pursue support for a traditional imagery acquisition program.

Yet, so many states have not been able to get such a program in place. If commercial options offer a price advantage and they can be tailored to provide a similar ‘enterprise-wide’ resource look and feel to the end user, then they are certainly worth exploring.

Hopefully, this post identifies, in moderate detail, some of the important “terms” considerations for commercial imagery licenses, and, provides some basic guidance along the way. Also, remember that other states have implemented licensed aerial photography programs in recent years. Those states, and the vendor community are typically glad to respond to your questions.

Finally, best of luck -- no matter which path you may choose to pursue -- as you strive to make current, high res aerial photography available to your community of practitioners.