Does Government GIS Data Belong to the People?

7 Feb, 2012 By: Bruce Joffe

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

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.

Transparent Government, Empowered Citizens

This court case is important to GIS users and organizations primarily because as citizens of our democratically elected governments (local, state, and national), we must be able to oversee, review, and possibly challenge the actions of our government agencies. Government transparency is essential to democracy, and it requires that citizens have easy access to their governments' data. We need the ability to review the data by which governmental decisions are made, and perhaps challenge them if they seem to violate basic principles of fairness, equity, and good governance.

Of course, there are limitations to the goal of "easy access to government data"; we have to respect personal privacy and assure collective security. Most governmental data, however, does not fall under those limitations.

GIS analysts believe that 80% of our governments' decisions involve location-based data. So GIS-compatible databases are a large and integral part of government operations. While citizens have the right to obtain and review copies of this data, government agencies are not required to give them GIS software or to analyze the data for them. That is the role of experts — GIS professionals.

As trained professionals, we can help our fellow citizens review decisions that affect them by analyzing their governments' GIS data to answer questions such as:

  • "Is my property being taxed fairly?"
  • "Are public works improvements being deployed equitably?"
  • "Are zoning variance decisions being made impartially?"

Costs and Benefits

Transparency is just one of the benefits of easily accessible data. According to studies on the subject, agencies that don't impede the distribution of their data with high prices or other restrictions experience greater economic growth and development. The more people who use a county's GIS basemap data, the more beneficial purposes that data will be supporting. If a developer of commercial or industrial property uses a county's basemap, it would be bringing economic development to that location.

There are many ways that a government agency can pay for the considerable cost of creating and maintaining its GIS basemap. Primarily, the return on investment (ROI) comes from the greater efficiency and better decision-making that the GIS data provides to government operations. Fewer people are needed to perform jobs such as notifying property owners within 1,000 feet of a proposed zoning variance, and that notification takes far less time. Street-sweeping routes may be optimized, thereby removing the need to purchase another expensive street-sweeping machine.

These benefits of using GIS data save our governments money. Unfortunately, at this time, the benefits and savings are not well tabulated in a systematic manner. The money saved by not purchasing a street-sweeping machine may be used for additional sewer line repair instead, so the ROI of the GIS department that maintains this data is not easily accounted for. If it were, there would be no need for a government to sell its data in order to support its GIS operation.

What Lies Ahead

The California Supreme Court has now taken Sierra Club's appeal and will make a precedent-setting determination as to whether GIS-formatted database information is subject to the Public Records Act. If the Supreme Court decides in Sierra Club's favor, the remaining nine (out of 58) California counties that sell their GIS data will have to change their high-cost distribution policy to one of low-cost compliance. Any future lawsuits brought against a recalcitrant county would face the Supreme Court's precedent decision.

Conversely, if Orange County wins, then many counties may reverse their distribution policy and start charging for their data. The opportunity would be wide open for many disparate kinds of data to be classified as exempt from PRA jurisdiction, including any data records that contain an address, geographic coordinates, or Assessor Parcel Number.

Supporting a New Policy

The National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) issued a very informative brochure extolling the benefits of open access to governmental GIS data and debunking the myths that have supported governmental sale of that data. NSGIC recommends that governments review their data distribution policies and adjust them, if necessary, to provide their data more openly and accessibly. While the California Supreme Court is primarily responsible for California law, it also has an eye on public policy, both in its home state and nationwide. NSGIC's recommendation, as well as federal policy for building a National Spatial Data Infrastructure, support the policy of making government geodata easily accessible.

Most GIS professionals understand the value of openly sharing geographic information and support efforts to enforce public record law compliance. As individuals, we can be effective, and working together through our professional associations, we can be influential in the public policy forums of our democracy, both legislative and judicial.

Some of our professional associations see their purpose as representing the GIS community on this policy issue, while others, unfortunately, have chosen to limit their potential value to our community by choosing to not get involved in specific cases or legislation. For the good of our community, and our nation, that needs to change. Our democracy requires open access to government geodata.

About the Author: Bruce Joffe

Bruce Joffe

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Re: Does Government GIS Data Belong to the People?
by: raj
February 8, 2012 - 7:25pm
This is an interesting development. It had always been a longstanding understanding that anything developed by a public utility using public funding belonged to those who had paid for it...the people. I do know that this is not specific to the US, but all over the world, developments made with public funding are now being charged for. I wonder how it would go if work was done for a company where the person/consultant then decided to licence the work to the company! After all, isn't this the same thing? The public have paid for the work to be done through taxes, and then they are asked to pay again when they want to access what they paid for. It is one thing to charge for the facilities and other costs of maintaining the data and making it accessible, but to charge for the data itself is a bit over the top.
Re: Does Government GIS Data Belong to the People?
by: Spjika
February 9, 2012 - 6:05pm
Bruce, it will be interesting to see how this new OpenGovernment law Leland Yee is putting forward will impact this case and this issue. SB1002 will require government agencies in California to make their public data available purely at cost. The precedent of most other counties and some statewide laws will hopefully push or mandate that every city/county makes parcel data available freely online in usable formats- just imagine the economic development that is possible from both small and large companies and from new startups!
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