Keeping NAIP free & open

By: Charlie Loyd

Late last year a leaked US Department of Agriculture slide deck revealed a worrying proposal: as soon as 2019, the data of the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) could move from open data to a licensed system. That would be a shortsighted move, and we strongly encourage USDA to keep NAIP as free and open data. We’ve seen its value for ourselves, and we believe it’s an important resource for the whole geospatial community.

NAIP shows the braided flats at the mouth of the Skagit River, Washington.

NAIP helped us grow

NAIP covers the continental US with 1 meter resolution imagery that anyone can use, without fees or restrictions. Its primary purpose is to support the agricultural sector, but it’s also useful for planning, environmental monitoring, visualization, and data pipeline testing.

We know NAIP’s importance from experience. In 2014, when our satellite team was building the capacity to apply color correction to images at scale, we used NAIP as a testbed. As we’ve grown and our options have increased, its share of our imagery mix has shrunk, replaced by newer and sharper commercial data. But we wouldn’t have come as far or as fast without it, and we think that anyone with a geospatial project deserves the same resource.

To understand why it’s so crucial that NAIP is completely free, consider its scale. In 2014, we used all 8 terapixels of NAIP. At a “nominal” price of, say, $10 per square mile — which might sound reasonable if you only imagine users with local interests — that would have cost $30 million. And if it cost anything at all, licensing would have meant we couldn’t redistribute it on our basemap in the first place. NAIP as anything but truly open data wouldn’t have been useful to us. The difference between cheap and free can be enormous.

NAIP powers innovation

Imagine a professor teaching a computer vision course at a small college today. With NAIP, she can have her class run their algorithms in the cloud on a defined, reproducible dataset. They can iterate on their analytical models and try to trace every road in Chicago, or predict wolf sightings from land cover in Montana, or map all the swimming pools in the entire continental US, for just the cost of processing and bandwidth. NAIP wasn’t intended for these kinds of use, but it can and does power them — more of them than could ever be completely cataloged. Because it’s open data, that professor doesn’t have to get permission, fill out paperwork, or pay nickel-and-dime charges to use the imagery for something no one’s imagined before.

The underlying topography and hydrology shows through patterns of cultivation south of Clovis, New Mexico, in NAIP imagery.

NAIP is good for business

NAIP adds vitality to the high-end imagery market, too. It’s a little like the free sample data that many companies publish, but instead of being specific to any one brand, it’s sample data for geospatial imagery in general. It creates customers by providing an “on-ramp” for students, small businesses, and organizations learning to work with remote sensing resources. As they need more sophisticated data and services, they will buy them. But without NAIP as free baseline data, they might never start the weekend projects and pilot initiatives that turn into big products and million-dollar data contracts.

Public data should be open

Besides arguments based on economics and innovation, it’s also worth considering NAIP as a national resource. The fact that any American can go to EarthExplorer and get a standardized image of their neighborhood has a civic value that isn’t denominated in dollars. It reflects the simple but important idea that publicly funded data about America should be free for all Americans. That alone is a good reason to maintain NAIP as we know it. In fact, we should use NAIP as an example of the value of public domain data.

A section of Escalante River, in Utah, shown in NAIP.

How to help support NAIP

We strongly support NAIP continuing as free and open data. Pragmatically, it benefits the whole geospatial community, especially by helping smaller players grow, and it creates much more demand than it could ever displace. And as a matter of principle, it should be freely available to the American people.

We understand that USDA, which is responsible for NAIP, has limited resources and must weigh and prioritize its responsibilities. We want to say, loudly and clearly, that NAIP is worth continuing exactly as it is.

If you agree, here’s how you can help:

  • Join the Save the NAIP mailing list to stay updated on this fight and how you can participate. Sharing your NAIP testimonials here will ensure that we get them to the right people.
  • Write about how NAIP has helped you or your business, whether it’s an article, blog post, or tweet. The proposal to close NAIP’s data isn’t finalized yet. There’s still time to convince the right people in government that NAIP must remain open.
  • If the proposal proceeds, there will be a public comment period before its finalization. You can be sure you’ll hear about it and how to participate if you read this blog or join the list above.

Charlie Loyd


Keeping NAIP free & open was originally published in Points of interest on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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