Open Data Standards don't apply to the Military?

USAFA IncompatibleLast night I came upon a new posting at FedBizOps for the US Air Force Academy's ESRI Software License Renewal. The solicitation is a sole-source justification for license renewal of ESRI software for $25 million USD.

While government procurement makes things like sole-sourcing common as a mechanism to just renew license - it is really the supporting justifications for this sole-sourcing that are disconcerting.

From the solicitiation: "ESRI is the only source that can satisfy the needs of the government for the following reasons."

  1. The Geospatial Information System section within the 10th Civil Engineering squadron has been using ESRI software since their initial development eight years ago.
  2. All of the past and present mapping and client specification have been developed using ESRI software products.
  3. The Dean of Faculty's Geography department also uses the ESRI academic site license for teaching all Geographical Information System coursework to the cadets.
  4. Software standardization between the 10th CES, DFEG, and the entire USAFA is extremely critical.
  5. Compatibility allows GIS data sharing between all agencies on the USAFA will continue to support GIS development in the future.
  6. Award of this contract to another contractor would jeopardize the performance of our mission by making all of the existing GIS data non-usable.

Which of those reasons are legitimate to the missions of the government and defense, and which are indicative of a more endemic problem of vendor lockin?

The points of the critical nature of compatibility are very important. Data and information must freely flow between sources, analysts, consumers, observers, and archiving. In addition, there are definitely costs to retraining and maintenance that affects changing or introducing new software.

However, the majority of reasons provided by the solicitation point to legacy decisions, old implementations, academic education of specific vendors (definitely not uncommon), and the bold closing statement that the data from these software packages is not usable in any other tools.

It's that last particular point that should be the most disturbing to the administration. Apparently all geospatial data being developed and utilized by the USAFA would be unusable without a sole software vendor. This causes concern over broader interoperability with other agencies and organizations, access to important national information, and archivability and retrievability.

The fault here isn't on ESRI. They offer an interoperability suite that supports OGC, ISO, and other standards that agencies could utilize. The fault lies with the government contracting that justifies this type of reasoning of renewal and continuation because of single-vendor lockin. There is little excuse that open, compatible interfaces should be part of such a large contract.

I wonder when software licenses and interoperability spending will show up in the USASpending IT Dashboard?

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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.