Bruce Joeffe Principal, GIS Consultants Bruce Joeffe is one of the founders of BAMA and a Principal at GIS Consultants. His driving force is defending public access to our governments’ geodata and his talk focused on the implications of not making GIS data, which has been used to produce analysis on projects of interest to the public, available at a reasonable cost. He focused on local and federal requirements to make this kind of data public. Most of his talk was centered around basemaps and parcel data, and how making this data available to the general public for free, or at most the cost of duplication, makes it easier for you and me to run queries to get information on subjects like how individual property taxes compare in a predefined area, or what kind of data was used to determine where government services such as paved sidewalks and city parks are located. His talk focused on the legal ramifications of two important court cases being used to battle for the right to have this GIS data made available and what the cost will include. These are the case against the County of Santa Clara, which has already been decided, and the ongoing case against Orange County. He presented timelines and the stages each case has been through to date and made comparisons on how the two cases differ. The case against Santa Clara County was decided in favor of making the data available for free or for the nominal cost of duplication; Orange County is still in litigation. So why is it so important that the public have the right to the GIS data? One of the reasons is so any citizen can look at what kind of data the government used to make decisions affecting their homes and neighborhoods. And why is it important that this data be in GIS format and not PDF files, maps and other static data? With GIS data users can create queries that focus on certain attributes used in the original analysis, including attributes such as size of the property, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, and family income in order to compare the value of their home and property taxes to the value of their neighbors’ homes. Or use these queries to see the values of properties within 200 ft. of a park or 200 ft. of a dump, or how many parks and sidewalks are being built in neighborhoods with higher income bases vs. lower income basis. This information can then be used to convince local governments to fund projects in the best interest of the local communities. This kind of in-depth analysis cannot be easily performed on static data. The tabular data would first have to be entered into a geo-database, then aerial images geo-referenced, geocoded and put into the database and referenced to the tabular information before the simplest query could be created. Unfortunately this public need for the data is colliding with the public agency’s need to fund their geodata operations and this has led to excessive fees being charged for the data. This conflict of interest between the general public and the public agencies has spawned the above mentioned law suites. And the main spark that ignited this conflict was on October 3, 2005 the Attorney General published an opinion basically stating that any electronic parcel data (basemap) must be promptly furnished to the public when requested and that the fee that could be charged was the minimal amount of the direct cost of reproducing the data. Bruce first discussed the details and timeline for the case against Santa Clara County. The main point of contention was whether or not the GIS data could be considered software. If it is considered software, then the owner of the data could claim that it is protected by copyright laws and they have the right to charge licensing fees, or not to release the data for any reason. So on June 12, 2006 the battle began between the California First Amendment Coalition and the County of Santa Clara. This battle spanned 34 months and included arguments on topics such as whether the public could be harmed by the release of this data in the form of terrorists using it to attack or whether the GIS data itself is part of Bruce Joeffe Principal, GIS Consultants the GIS software system. In the case against Santa Clara County the decision was that the data would not cause harm to the general public and the GIS data was not part of the GIS software system and they were directed to comply with the California Public Records Law. Next he discussed the case currently in progress in Orange County and the different turn this case took. It started when the Sierra Club sent a Letter of Request for Data to the Orange County Assessor. The County refused their request stating that the Attorney General’s Opinion wasn’t binding law; the GIS data was part of the computer mapping software system and thus exempt. The Sierra Club quoted the County of Santa Clara case but Orange County countered with the Software Exemption. The Software Exemption, §6254.9(b), basically states “computer software includes computer mapping systems, computer programs and computer graphics systems” which makes the GIS data exempt from enforcement of the California Public Records Law and protects it under copyright. The battle in Orange County is still in progress and is focused on the definition of a computer mapping system, the definition of GIS and the meaning of the term “includes” in the Software Exemption. So what are the ramifications if a decision goes in the opposite direction from the case in Santa Clara County? According to Bruce, currently 49 counties provide their parcel data at no cost or the minimal cost of duplication, 8 counties sell their data for more than the cost of duplication and 1 county isn’t releasing any of their data. If the decision in Orange County reverses the decision in Santa Clara County, all counties in the State of California could go back to charging large fees and enforcing licensing fees and agreements. The difference in the two cases is where the break was made and that is the legal definition of software, what it is and isn’t, and why or why not it should be made available to the public. Unfortunately it appears Orange County has better lawyers than Santa Clara County, and the difficulties that must be overcome in cases like this is in getting the judiciary to understand the technical definitions involved.
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