Failing to allow access to government GIS data not only hurts the ability for GIS engineers and cartographers to create useful and beautiful pieces of work, but hurts our effort as a society to create a more open and honest government. Several states, though thankfully not Georgia, specifically exempt GIS data from being a government record that must be disclosed to the public and the California Supreme Court is set to weigh in on the issue.
California, like the federal government and every other state, has an open records act that requires government agencies to make public records promptly available to any requesting person “upon payment of fees covering direct costs of duplication, or a statutory fee if applicable.” The fee is only assessed to cover the cost of duplication, not the cost of creating the information in the first place. California’s act exempts all computer software developed by the state or any local agency. This exemption is designed to offset the cost of software development by allowing agencies to license the software to the public. The California Supreme Court in Sierra Club v. Superior Court must decide if Geographical Information System (GIS) data is considered an open record under the state’s open record act. GIS can be described as a system for analyzing data associated with geographical points. It allows for effective spatial analysis of data and is used extensively by governments and private industry.
At issue here is the meaning of the term “computer mapping system,” which is included under the software exemption umbrella. Orange County insists that the term includes both the GIS program used by the county and the GIS data associated with the program and therefore does not need to disclose the data. The Sierra Club thinks this is ridiculous as GIS data should not be included in the definition of software and should therefore be considered a public record and subject to disclosure at their request. Specifically, the Sierra Club was requesting the basemap data of the parcels in Orange County; this includes boundary lines, tax assessor information, and addresses. I should clarify that Orange County will make available requested data free of any licensing fee, but only in PDF form. However, if the data is not in GIS file format it’s much less valuable because it cannot be analyzed in the GIS software.
The California legislature conveniently failed to define the term “computer mapping system” so the California Court of Appeals went through a lengthy process of determining the intent of the legislature and decided GIS data should be exempt from disclosure. They reasoned that this type of data was different because it was closely related to the software used by the county and the legislature intended to protect the data so agencies could license it to help pay for the cost of developing the software. Orange County, and no other county for that matter, actually developed any mapping software. The county uses the popular ArcGIS software. Taking into account the fact that no software was developed and the purpose behind the legislation was to allow counties to recoup the cost of developing a computer mapping system, the Court decided the legislature must have intended the data to be protected as this is the only thing that could possibly be licensed. In reaching this decision, the Court also noted that Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, and North Carolina all specifically exempt GIS databases or make this data subject to a fee beyond the cost of duplication.
Regardless of who is coming to the conclusion that GIS data should be exempt, the court or the legislature, it is a terrible decision. The point of open records acts is to make government data, information used by your government to make decisions, readily available to you. Obviously some data needs to be exempt from disclosure to protect the well-being and safety of citizens, but this is really the only time data should be exempt. The California Court of Appeals and the states that specifically exempt GIS data are deciding that making data available to the public isn’t important if the government can make money from the data. Protecting software that was actually developed by the government may be a different story, but governments are not developing any GIS software. They are using commercial software, producing databases using the software, then claiming that this data is somehow different than other data they produce. It’s not. This data just happens to be much more valuable because a GIS mapping system is useful, expensive, and employed in all aspects of society. If the government can exempt this type of data, why can’t they exempt other types of data too? Any databases they create using Microsoft Excel could be exempt as well. Government financial interests shouldn’t trump our right to have access to our data.
A GIS mapping system is incredibly useful and necessary; it processes information in a way that makes all government services more effective and adaptive to changing needs. Clearly we want the government to have a system like this, but how do we pay for it? Making citizens pay for the information that the government uses is not the best choice. This creates a pay wall for our data, much like paying for some articles on newspaper websites. Do we really want to the government to decide that our information is only available to those who can or are willing to pay whatever fee they charge? The purpose of open records acts is to make disclosure the default rule because we value open and honest government. Allowing the government to exempt or charge money for certain data because the data is economically valuable does not uphold the goal of creating and maintaining open government.
Update: Back in July the California Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Sierra Club and ruled that GIS data was public data that must be disclosed.