National Baseline of High-resolution 3D Data​

The United States Geological Survey (USGS), under its 3D Elevation Program (3DEP), has set the goal to complete nationwide data acquisition in eight years.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS), under its  3D Elevation Program (3DEP), has set the goal to complete nationwide data acquisition in eight years, by 2023, to provide the first-ever national baseline of consistent high-resolution three-dimensional (3D) data —including bare Earth elevations and 3D point clouds —collected in a timeframe of less than a decade. 


Successful implementation of 3DEP depends on the development and adoption of a unified Federal approach to acquiring data. This involves implementing certain best practices to aid the Federal 3DEP community in reaching a higher level of coordinated  implementation, maximize Federal data investments, and reduce the number of years it will take to complete national coverage. A set of best practices is provided to Federal agencies as a checklist to assess the level of their participation and to inspire further adoption of Federal enterprise practices that will advance joint 3DEP coverage goals for the benefit of their missions and the Nation as a whole. It is anticipated that additional best practices will be defined and added as the effort matures.

Acquiring data through a unified approach substantially benefits Federal partners and the Nation’s taxpayers in multiple ways, including:

  • Reduced unit costs by pooling funding with other partners;
  • Reduced unit costs through the economy of scale achieved through larger project sizes;
  • Access to qualified and experienced mapping firms under contract to acquire and process data;
  • More consistent data from standardized acquisition and larger project areas;
  • The opportunity to “buy up” higher quality data for specialized applications;
  • The opportunity to receive 3DEP cost-share funding to acquire light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data;
  • US Geological Survey (USGS) programmatic infrastructure that issues and manages data acquisition contracts and inspects, accepts, and distributes point cloud and derived data products; reduced costs for not replicating the same infrastructure in multiple agencies;
  • Increased State, local, Tribal, and other data acquisition partnerships through advanced planning and earlier notification of opportunities enabled by a defined, stable Federal acquisition budget; and
  • Data made publicly available to support countless other uses.


High quality elevation data are critical to flood risk management, resource management, conservation, energy development, agriculture, infrastructure management, critical minerals exploration, and a host of other nationally significant applications. The National Enhanced Elevation Assessment (Dewberry, 2012) documented more than 600 business uses of elevation data across 34 Federal agencies, all 50 States, selected local government and Tribal offices, and private and non-profit organizations. To respond to these growing needs, the USGS National Geospatial Program is managing the interagency 3DEP on behalf of the community. The primary goal of 3DEP is to systematically collect 3D elevation data during an 8-year period in the form of LiDAR data for the conterminous United States, Hawaii, and the US territories.

Images from (top to bottom) a derived bare earth digital elevation model, colorized point cloud, and light detection and ranging profile in Olympia, Washington. Trees and aboveground features can be seen in the colorized point cloud, whereas stripping away vegetation points allows for detection of features that are not detectable using traditional imagery-based methods. White dotted line represents profile location. Images courtesy of Jason M. Stoker, U.S. Geological Survey

Interferometric synthetic aperture radar (commonly referred to as “IfSAR”) data have been acquired for Alaska, where cloud cover and remote locations preclude the use of LiDAR in much of the State. 3DEP is designed based on the National Enhanced Elevation Assessment benefit-cost analysis to conservatively provide a return on investment of 5:1 and new benefits of $690 million per year with the potential to generate $13 billion per year in new benefits through applications that span the economy. The National Geospatial Advisory Council (the advisory committee to the Federal Geographic Data Committee), the National States Geographic Information Council, and more than 40 other national professional organizations as members of the 3DEP Coalition have endorsed 3DEP as a consolidated, national approach to data acquisition. 3DEP presents a unique opportunity for collaboration among all levels of government to leverage the services and expertise of private sector mapping firms that acquire the data and to create jobs now and in the future.

3DEP, by design, is a cooperative program that meets the needs of a broad range of stakeholders and depends on substantial data investments and contributions through Federal, State, Tribal, and private sector partnerships. In the initial years since the inception of 3DEP in 2012, and the first full year of 3DEP production at the USGS in 2016, the infrastructure and governance for managing the nationwide program have been established. Federal coordination for the program is managed through the 3DEP Executive Forum and the operational 3DEP Working Group, and data acquisition is managed through a Broad Agency Announcement process and Federal data partnerships. Strides have been made to move beyond an ad hoc process that had long primarily emphasized information sharing about agency acquisition plans to one that more fully integrates acquisition investments across all levels of government. As a result, 3DEP-quality data were available or in progress for about 78% of the Nation at the end of fiscal year 2020.

Developing partnerships for better outcomes

In spite of this success, developing partnerships and funding for data acquisition in the western United States remains a challenge to meeting the 8-year goal of nationwide data completion by 2023. Continued implementation of a systematic, multiyear plan across multiple Federal agencies is critical to the successful campaign to produce nationwide coverage of modern 3D elevation data.

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