NASA has fulfilled only about half of its key geospatial responsibilities, according to a government watchdog; however, the agency has made progress since the previous audit report.

NASA’s Office of Inspector General issued a report on Wednesday, addressing the agency’s compliance with the Geospatial Data Act of 2018, which aims to “promote the effective government-wide management of geospatial data — information identifying the geographic location and characteristics of natural or built features and boundaries on Earth.” The act formalizes geospatial data management processes in addition to providing policy and guidance for the use of geospatial data and technology, as well as collaboration between the public and private sectors.

The OIG said NASA and its partner satellite missions and research provide publicly available geospatial data. NASA uses such data in a variety of ways, according to the watchdog, such as mapping years of ice sheet loss.

Agencies are required to follow standards established by the Federal Geographic Data Commission, as well as adhere to other data reporting and sharing requirements.

As part of the government’s overall geospatial audit effort for fiscal year 2022, NASA’s OIG examined the agency’s progress toward meeting the 13 responsibilities listed in section 759(a) of the Act because geospatial standards have not yet been established in addition to NASA implementing the previous recommendations of the supervisory authority in its 2020 Audit

According to the OIG, NASA’s responsibilities are:

  1. Prepare and implement a strategy to advance geospatial data activities appropriate to the agency’s mission.
  2. Collect, maintain, disseminate and store geospatial data so that the resulting data, information or products can be shared.
  3. Promoting the integration of geospatial data.
  4. Ensure that geospatial information is included in agency records schedules that are approved by the National Archives and Records Administration.
  5. Allocate resources to fulfill geospatial data responsibilities.
  6. Use standards for geospatial data and metadata.
  7. Coordinating with other federal agencies; state, local, and tribal governments; higher education institutions; and the private sector.
  8. Make federal geospatial information more useful to the public, improve operations, support decision making, and improve reporting to the public and Congress.
  9. Protect your personal privacy and maintain privacy in accordance with federal policy and law.
  10. Participate in determining whether declassified data can become part of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure.
  11. Search all sources to determine if existing data meets the needs of the covered agency before spending funds to obtain geospatial data.
  12. Ensure that those who receive federal funds to collect geospatial data provide high-quality data.
  13. Designate a contact to coordinate with other covered lead agencies.

The OIG found that while NASA is making progress under the act, six of 13 key components have not been completed.

Specifically, while NASA has made progress on some of the agency’s 13 responsibilities since the last report, such as creating a geospatial data strategy, it has not completed its plan to implement that strategy — in which the oversight agency also found that key activities to meet the agency’s responsibilities were missing. According to the OIG, the agency’s plan does not fully define the roles and responsibilities of NASA employees for geospatial data management as required by law. The OIG also found that the plan did not include crucial elements such as creating a complete and accurate inventory of geospatial data. As a result, the OIG’s 2020 recommendation to “develop a unified strategy implementation plan or Roadmap that sets out detailed action items, milestones, and responsibilities for geospatial data management in support of missions at NASA” is still valid.

NASA has not created a complete and accurate inventory of its geospatial data assets as required by law, according to the watchdog. The OIG noted that most geospatial data is processed by its Earth Science Division, but “some geospatial data are not related to Earth science and are not cataloged in the repository,” so there is no central, comprehensive inventory of the agency’s geospatial data. because NASA does not have a fully implemented process for identifying and cataloging it. OIG noted that meeting this requirement will rely on the Enterprise Data Platform and NASA’s data management program, but both must be mature to be fully utilized. The OIG added that the lack of a complete and accurate inventory of geospatial data impedes NASA’s ability to fulfill three other responsibilities set forth in the Act, namely Responsibilities 3, 5, and 8.

The watchdog added that NASA also faces challenges in establishing National Archives and Records Administration-approved record retention schedules for its geospatial data. In particular, because NASA holds geospatial data dating back to the 1960s, the OIG previously recommended that the agencies enter into a linked records agreement, which the records agency has been hesitant to do. The custodian noted that there is “some ambiguity as to what levels of scientific data should be included” in the NARA-approved record schedules. However, the OIG said that because of the importance of NASA’s observations, NASA and NARA should work together to “determine an acceptable path forward to fulfill the intent of the GDA.”

The OIG made four recommendations to NASA to improve compliance with the law.

The oversight body recommended that the agency’s chief information officer, in coordination with the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate and the assistant administrator for strategic infrastructure, to:

  • Place the senior agency official for the geospatial information role at NASA to have the necessary responsibility, accountability, and authority to carry out GDA-assigned responsibilities.
  • Define the roles and responsibilities of SAOGI and other key stakeholders in NASA’s geospatial data strategy and implementation plan.
  • Have the Geospatial Data Strategy implementation plan contain detailed action items and milestones, such as those for creating a complete and accurate inventory of NASA’s geospatial data.
  • Coordinate with NARA to decide what appropriate level of scientific data to include in the record schedules.

NASA agreed with the OIG’s recommendations and outlined planned actions to address them, according to the watchdog. As a result, the OIG considers management’s comments responsive and marks the recommendations as resolved. Referrals will be closed after completion and review of proposed actions.

NASA said it will reevaluate the organizational assignment and designation of SAOGI to ensure compliance and update roles and responsibilities as noted by the FGDC. It will also implement an Enterprise Data Catalog plan, including prioritizing a full inventory of its geospatial data. Additionally, NASA will work with NARA on a record retention schedule.

The agency estimated it would implement the recommendations between June 2023 and September 2024.

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