Recent Victories for Open Geospatial Data

Lee Hachadoorian on Aug 28th 2013

The tagline of this blog is “Urban Economic Geography and Open Everything”. Free City supports free and open source software, open access publishing, and open data. Many governments are making much of their data publicly available, including New York City’s own open data portal. But geospatial data has sometimes been handled differently, sometimes because of privacy concerns, often because of security concerns. For example, the New York State GIS Clearinghouse allows direct downloading of orthoimagery (aerial photography) for much of the state, but for sensitive areas, including all of New York City, there is are some hoops to jump through.

Doubtless some of the evocation of privacy and security concerns is disingenuous, as much of the protected data is nonetheless commercially available. But in some cases it is the government itself which is licensing the data, raising the question of why they are only willing to give it to people who pay for it. In two recent cases having to do with property records, local governments chose or were forced to make their geographic data freely available. New York City’s Department of City Planning recently chose to make its MapPLUTO database available for download, whereas previously they had charged $300 per borough for this collection of building and tax records joined to parcel footprints. On the other side of the country, Orange County, California was forced by a court decision to open up their parcel database, which they had previously been licensing for $375,000!

In the Orange County case, the county was forced to release the data under the existing Public Records Act. Why wasn’t it already available? Because it was GIS data! The county claimed that the data was exempt because it was “software”. The California Supreme Court sensibly rejected that claim. After all, if the same information had been requested in hard copy, the county would have been legally required to provide it (and would have realized as much). I would go even further and ask, why is there an exemption for software? As a free software advocate, I would argue that the same reasons that apply to public records also apply to publicly developed software, including that it is paid for with tax dollars, and that there is a public benefit to its wide availability. There could still, as is the case with public records, be security exceptions for certain kinds of software.

The lawsuit which led to this case was filed by the Sierra Club, which had requested the parcel data for use in conservation planning. As a nonprofit, they could not afford the $375,000 licensing fee. Now that the court has ruled that the data are not exempt from the existing law, the Sierra Club will be able to obtain the data “for the cost of producing the physical copy”, presumably the cost of some DVDs, or free if provided electronically. In the New York case, the fees weren’t nearly so egregious, but nonetheless, I knew of small nonprofits, and—until the Grad Center licensed the data—CUNY grad students who could not afford to pay them.

The size of the fees—a lot for a grad student, not a lot for a government the size of New York City’s—really call into question why they existed in the first place. At $375,000 a pop, Orange County claimed that the fees helped support the GIS services that made the data available in the first place. But NYC’s Department of City Planning was only collecting $50 to $80 thousand a year from their licensing scheme, which is pretty small potatoes. Furthermore, at least one nonprofit obtained the data for free through a NYS Freedom of Information Law Request! So DCP, unlike Orange County, did not even attempt to argue that the data were exempt from its state’s public records law. But they did require the nonprofit to sign the standard license agreement, which restricted redistribution of the data. This does seem to suggest that, rather than pecuniary interest, DCP was more interested in asserting control over the data for some reason or another, and that there was something about this data in particular that it was concerned about, since it provided virtually all of its other data for free via public download.

Thanks are due to Steve Romalewski, my friend and former boss at Center for Urban Research. Steve has advocated for the freeing of this data set for some time, and in announcing the new DCP policy on his blog, he thanks several others in academia, journalism, and the nonprofit world for their contribution to this wonderful result.

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