Opening the GIS Data Vault

The geospatial “open government” effort received a significant boost recently when the State of California Supreme Court ruled Orange County must grant access to its electronic mapping data without charging a licensing fee. The case was brought by the Sierra Club seeking access to mapping data in its fight to protect public land.  The case started in 2007, when the Sierra Club requested from Orange County a copy of its GIS parcel database, containing the location and layout of each legal parcel of land in the county. At that time, Orange County licensed copies of the parcel database to private companies and public agencies for $375,000. The county also required licensees to sign non-disclosure agreements preventing further distribution.  The California ruling augments one closer to home when in 2005 the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in a similar case involving – and against – the Town of Greenwich.  There are several other relevant GIS legal challenges in the states of Florida, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and here in New York (Suffolk County copyright on tax maps) which are summarized in an excellent   2012 State of Indiana GIS Conference presentation entitled “Legalities of GIS” (Sparks and Estes).

Also in July 2013, whether mere coincidence or bowing to years of pressure and in response to the California ruling, New York City’s Department of City Planning quit charging fees for one of the most-demanded city datasets: PLUTO.  PLUTO (Primary Land Use Tax Lot Output) contains detailed information about every piece of land in the city ( including tax assessments, historic districts, year built, number of units, lot size, etc. Before doing so, users had to pay $1,500 ($300 per borough) for the first time and then again for every update.  Not only did urban research institutes, community groups, nonprofits and planning firms have to pay the city each year for access to the data, but also had to stay compliant with a 14-page license agreement that, among other things, forbid them from sharing the data or putting any part of it on the internet.

So what?  What does the California ruling and release of the NYC PLUTO data really mean to the broader New York State GIS community?  In the short term, probably little. However,  it does seem the time is nearing when various New York statewide GIS organizations can come together to discuss, and perhaps, set in motion an effort to challenge the practice of charging fees and/or licensing tax-payer funded GIS data.  And at the center of this discussion would inevitably be New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).  Granted the long procedure of litigation, appeals, etc., is costly requiring deep pockets for even those who have the financial resources and legal support to endure the lengthy process but there are potentially dozens of organizations – environmental, not-for-profits, business interests, even governments – which have been confronted with the GIS data fee/licensing issue and have an interest in the issue.

Also, any serious statewide discussion on removing barriers towards selling and licensing geospatial data will first have to include a major review, revision, or complete elimination of the 16-year old NYS GIS Data Sharing Cooperative, which by extension, administers Cooperative Data Sharing Agreements for governments and not-for-profits.  The agreement itself may conflict with the basic tenets of “open government” in that the agreement currently excludes industry and business as Cooperative members as well as including provisions which allow Cooperative members to sell or license their own data.
And as if the growing body of legal decisions mandating governments to make GIS data available for free (beyond the reasonable cost of reproduction) is not enough, there is also a plethora of examples documenting the financial benefits for making geospatial data available at no cost. Note the NYC BigApps 3.0 competition which challenges software developers to create apps that use city data to “make NYC better”.  The 3.0 competition included $50,000 prize money.  Similar efforts are underway in other metropolitan areas of the country including Portland, Oregon.   There is also the new Open New York data portal albeit how well the Socrata-based system integrates with the existing statewide GIS data infrastructure is to be seen.    A very timely and outstanding read on the benefits of making public GIS data open and free was recently published (April 2013) by MetroGIS (Minneapolis/St. Paul). The report contains a myriad of rational and financial justification on making GIS data available for free – including a multi-county breakdown illustrating on how little money is actually made by individual counties after factoring in the COSTS of administering their GIS sales/licensing programs.    Further reading can found in a similar 2011 National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) publication entitled “Geospatial Data Sharing:  Guidelines for Best Practices”.

In the long run, the charging of fees and licensing for tax payer funded geospatial data will ultimately be recognized as neither sustainable or cost effective.  Personnel and organizations will change as government programs are reduced, and to survive, must become more public and business friendly.  Organizations will simply not have the personnel and/or rational to administer data sharing and licensing agreements developed 10-20 years ago. Finally, although there will always be a few exceptions, the belief that the selling or licensing of data somehow supports operational elements of public GIS programs, or is a large money maker, will finally be proven otherwise.

However, to wait for the issue – or problem – to simply take care of itself and ultimately fade away is not the most prudent course of action.  As we can reasonably expect the continued high demand for government GIS datasets to continue, combined with the growing body of judicial cases and “open government” initiatives supporting unrestricted access, the time has come for the discussion, and action, to be taken seriously here in New York State.

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