Geographers and GIS specialists, be warned: If your work involves helping the underprivileged, the disadvantaged, and those who have long been discriminated against in our society then the federal government has no room for you in its budget. And don’t try to get your funds by invoking the age old argument of “I’m just trying to help enforce federal law.”
On January 11 of this year, US Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced S. 103 to prohibit the use of federal funds “to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.” Perhaps as a means of appealing to a larger audience and not repelling those who don’t like racial discrimination, S. 103 is titled “Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017.”
Over in the US House, Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and 24 other Republican representatives introduced H.R. 482, which mirrors S. 103. The two bills would also nullify the Obama-era Department of Housing and Urban Development rule entitled “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.”
Apparently these handouts to geospatial specialists have gotten out of hand and are bringing this country to its knees. It’s irrelevant that we need data on housing patterns throughout our communities in order to enforce the US Constitution and the Fair Housing Act, which prohibit racial discrimination in housing; the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of providing federal dollars to enforce federal law. Obviously, those who support S. 103 and H.R. 482 would likewise jump at the chance to support a bill that prohibited federal funds from being used to collect data needed to enforce federal drug laws. It’s not that they don’t agree with the Fair Housing Act and other federal housing laws, it’s about the principle of not using federal dollars to help further federal law. Surely we can rely on states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to adequately collect the data needed to further housing equality, right?
This is, of course, just another example of politicians cutting off funds when the funds are used to uncover and publicize undesirable facts. Does the empirical evidence show our climate is changing and humans are a significant cause? Yes, so shut down the satellites and silence the EPA so it can no longer release climate-related information to the public. Does data show that guns in the home significantly increase the likelihood of suicide, homicide, and accidental death? Yes, so prohibit the CDC from studying this any further and make sure doctors don’t tell people about the known risk, er, I mean coincidence. And now we get to geospatial data about discriminatory housing practices.
The American Association of Geographers (AAG) has taken a strong stance against S. 103 and H.R. 482. In the February 2017 edition of the AAG Newsletter, President Glen M. MacDonald argued that the two bills are “a direct attack on the ability of geographers and others to produce actionable and policy relevant research on racial disparities in this country.” MacDonald further stated that the bills would not only prohibit the collection of new data, but prevent access to existing data and federal funds from agencies like the National Science Foundation.
In a letter sent to Senator Mike Lee, AAG Executive Director Douglas Richardson wrote that the two bills
…could have far-reaching consequences on federally-sponsored research on racial discrimination, including on federal human health programs; census issues; education programs, including services for children; Department of Justice programs; and other critical programs.
Assistant Professor Mark Kear of the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona shared similar thoughts about the wide-ranging impact of the two bills. In response to SustainAtlanta’s request for commentary on the bill, Kear stated
it is my understanding that S. 103 is a direct response to the Obama Administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation requiring municipalities receiving federal funds to examine patterns of racial bias in housing. Regardless of whether one supports this regulation, the language of S. 103 is objectionable because it is so broad and likely to have many unintended adverse consequences for researchers and other groups that use such data.
Production, maintenance, and funding of data by the federal government can increase the uniforimity of data, reduce the unnecessary duplicative production of data, and increase accessibility to data. A plan to severely limit the federal government’s involvement in the collection of GIS data therefore undermines the work of urban planners, policy makers, lawyers, and most importantly, those most vulnerable to the negative impacts of racial discrimination.
It’s unacceptable for any politician to give the federal government billions of taxpayer dollars to spy on citizens (in direct violation of Constitutional privacy rights), but then to withhold money that would be used to collect data in the pursuit of moral and Constitutional justice. Members of Congress have already backed down from a straight repeal of the Affordable Care Act and from selling federal lands after massive outcries from constituents across the political spectrum. Those who believe the federal government should devote resources to furthering social justice and upholding basic tenants of the US Constitution should take every opportunity to make their voices heard by speaking out against the proposed legislation.
 See generally Folger, Peter. Geospatial Information and Geographic Information Systems (GIS): Current Issues and Future Challenges. Congressional Research Service. January 23, 2010. Accessed March 12, 2017 <https://www.fgdc.gov/resources/whitepapers-reports/CRS_Reports/CRS-Geospatial-issues-1-23-10.pdf>