GIS Tech News (#111)

8 Feb, 2012 By: Cadalyst Staff

Does Government GIS Data Belong to the People?

A California court case showcases the importance of public access to tax-funded databases.

By Bruce Joffe

After nearly three years of legal wrangling, the Sierra Club and Orange County are now facing off in the California Supreme Court. The issue that brought the two organizations into conflict is one of great importance to GIS professionals and non-users alike: public access to government databases.

A Case History

After the California First Amendment Coalition won a California Public Records Act (PRA) lawsuit against Santa Clara County, in April 2009, Sierra Club filed a similar suit against Orange County. Sierra Club needed Orange County's parcel basemap in the GIS-compatible database format, but couldn't afford to pay the price Orange County was charging — $475,000 — and didn't believe that the County had the right to charge more than the cost of duplication, as prescribed under the PRA.

Orange County defended its data sales policy with the so-called "software exemption" of the PRA, which states that government agencies do not have to provide software for the cost of duplication, as they do for the data that they use to make public decisions. According to this part of the law, "'computer software' includes computer mapping systems, computer programs, and computer graphics systems." Sierra Club appealed the case, but the 4th District Court of Appeal affirmed the decision in support of Orange County. The County's logic was that GIS includes software and data (citing ESRI's definition of GIS as "a collection of software and data"), the County's landbase is a GIS, GIS is a type of computer mapping system, and CMS is excluded by PRA section 6254.9; therefore, the County's GIS landbase data is excluded.

Sierra Club's rebuttals — that "computer mapping system" means a system of software modules, which does not include data; that GIS-formatted data is necessary for the public to analyze the government's decisions using its GIS database; that "includes" means an illustrative example, not an expansion of the definition of software; and that the California Legislature did not intend to exclude data when it passed the software exemption — were unsuccessful.

Two public records lawsuits for the same kind of data had resulted in opposite opinions. Sierra Club requested that the Supreme Court hear the case, and the Court agreed to. Final briefs were filed February 6, 2012. Read more »
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Bruce Joffe is principal and founder of GIS Consultants, an independent consulting firm that helps organizations implement and use geographic information systems (GIS).

City of Surrey Maintains Infrastructure with Mobile GIS

Cityworks Anywhere enabled this Canadian metropolis to replace its printed map books with laptops.

By Karen Stewart

The city of Surrey, British Columbia, spans 316 square kilometers, making it geographically one of the largest cities in Canada. Four times a year, the City conducts "sector checks" that require three field crews to inspect visible assets along Surrey's extensive road network and record infrastructure-related issues. To better manage this time-intensive task, Surrey implemented Azteca Systems' Cityworks Desktop and Anywhere, which automated the generation of service requests and work orders while equipping field crews with the ability to electronically access asset-related data.

Sector checks are an integral component of Surrey's infrastructure management program; they enable the city to comply with both provincial and municipal regulations, while ensuring the optimum safety of its assets. In the past, field crews would record observations using a proprietary application, transfer the information onto a floppy disk, and return to the office to upload data into a master sector checks database. During this upload, work sheets would be automatically created and distributed for other crews to address recorded deficiencies.

However, a lack of system integration was creating operational challenges. The city stored asset information in a central GIS database that could only be accessed in the office. Field crews did not have access to electronic mapping software, and relied on printed map books that were updated annually. Preventative maintenance (PM) program work and service requests were stored and maintained in Cityworks, requiring users to access multiple applications and datasets in order to fully visualize the current state of the city's infrastructure. To streamline workflows, the city would need to replace the aging, proprietary application with an automated work and asset management system. Read more »
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Karen Stewart is the industry manager, Public Works, for ESRI Canada.

Mark Your Calendar: GIS Events

Esri Developer Summit
March 26–29, 2012
Palm Springs, California
This event is an annual gathering of developers who want to do everything from plan large-scale GIS projects to create mapping applications and add mapping capabilities to existing applications. Read more 

FME World Tour 2012
April 16–September 25, 2012
Various cities
At these global events from Safe Software, attendees can learn about new capabilities in FME 2012, build FME skills through how-to and best-practice sessions, and receive technical assistance from FME Certified Professionals. Read more

Hexagon 2012 International Conference
June 4–7, 2012
Las Vegas, Nevada
Hexagon's second annual international conference will bring together users from Hexagon Metrology, Intergraph, ERDAS, Leica Geosystems, and NovAtel. The Hexagon 2012 agenda comprises hands-on training courses, interactive technology demonstrations and exhibits, and unlimited networking opportunities. Read more

For a complete list of CAD meetings, conferences, training sessions, and more, check out our calendar of events on Are you hosting an event that you would like to include in our calendar? Submit details at least two weeks in advance to

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About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

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