When was the last time you paid $250,000 for an ESRI Shapefile? If you are a GIS professional that lives in Santa Clara County, California, it might not have been that long ago.
In the “NEWSLINK” section of the December 2006 issue of GEOWORLD magazine there is a short article discussing a lawsuit brought by the California First Amendment Coalition against Santa Clara County. Santa Clara County evidently maintains several “base map layers” as many local governments now do. These layers contain, for example, information about the parcels within the county. The county does make this geospatial data available to the public, but at what I think most people could agree are some pretty outrageous prices. I almost choked when I read this portion of the article from GEOWORLD:
“The fee for the county-wide” parcel information, for example, is approximately $250,000. In addition, those receiving the data are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.”
No, I didn’t put the decimal point in the wrong place, or add any extra zeros. You just read “$250,000”. That figure isn’t in Mexican Pesos. That is actually ONE QUARTER OF A MILLION DOLLARS for the parcels layer. (I thought the $200 I paid for GIS data in my own county was too expensive. This story puts that in perspective.)
When I started this blog on of my goals was to become more active in the GIS community in general. I didn’t want to talk only about OpenJUMP. I hoped to discuss some broader topics that would be of interest to the GIS community, and add what I hope is a unique perspective on these issues from the position of both an open source advocate and a surveyor.
This is my first blog post in line with that goal.
I don’t have many details about the lawsuit, or the way Santa Clara County distributes is GIS data. I only know what I read from the short article in GEOWORLD. But I thought this news item brings to light an important issue in the geospatial community, and presented a good opportunity for some discussion on this issue. What follows is my opinion…
Government agencies should make geospatial data created and maintained completely or partially through public funds available to the public in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable price.
There is a cost associated with distributing geospatial data. For example, a government employee might need to spend some time collecting the data and placing it in an appropriate format, and they might need to pay for other costs like a CD or DVD, postage, and an envelope. I don’t have a problem paying for these types of costs when I acquire geospatial data from a government agency. After all, the public shouldn’t have to fund a GIS Data vending machine for GIS mapping professionals, and I don’t expect them to.
However, many government agencies cross the line and abuse their authority, charging far more than a “reasonable price”. Why does this happen? I can think of at least 3 different reasons. One is alluded to in the lawsuit against Santa Clara County. The GEOWOLRD article provides this insight:
“Scheer said that if the county base map were readily available, citizens would be able to see if their property is fairly assessed or if they’re being overcharged for home or flood insurance. ‘Access to the base map makes it possible for citizens to hold local government more accountable,’ he added.”
“’Real estate developers can afford to pay for the GIS database, but residents living near a development site don’t have access, and can’t pay the huge license fees,’ noted Rachel Matteo-Boehm, CFAC counsel and a lawyer with San Francisco-based Holme Roberts & Owen LLP.”
Let me interpret that for you.
The government knows that information is power, that maps are a great way to convey important information, and sometimes the government prefers the convenience of an ignorant citizenry. If you control access to the maps, you can keep people ignorant. Ignorant people have a difficult time questioning or challenging your decisions. (Especially decisions that favor large land developers.)
The second reason government agencies cross the line when it comes to access and affordability of publicly funded geospatial data is their budget. Most government departments can find a way to spend more money, and some of these are genuinely overworked and underfunded. How are they supposed to buy the new plotter and pay for the next upgrade of ArcGIS? When funding doesn’t come through the proper channels some GIS department managers may feel that selling GIS data for a higher price is the way to fill the gaps in their budget. This is flawed thinking. The solution to this problem isn’t highway robbery of GIS professionals, but addressing the budgeting issues that make this type of
robbery a temptation.
The third reason is perhaps the most legitimate. Many government agencies fear the legal liability that may arise from releasing geospatial data. As a result they severely limit the access and allowed uses of their geospatial data. The solution to this lies in promotion of a nation wide geospatial data licensing standard. Think of a “GPL” for geospatial data. If we have a geospatial data license, or licenses that gain widespread acceptance, government agencies will be able to overcome their fear of a lawsuit.
We can’t do much about the first two reasons as individual GIS professionals, but we can do something about the second. I encourage all of my readers to support standards for geospatial licensing when they have the opportunity.
$250,000 for the parcels layer. Santa Clara County should have known better. I think any reasonable person can recognize the problem with that fee. Hopefully a reasonable judge or jury will be able to do the same.
The Sunburned Surveyor