Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Quarter Million Dollar Shapefile...

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

9 comments:

jck said...

The California Attorney General sometime last year (I believe) issued an opinion that parcel data should be made available to the public at cost. Many cities/counties have changed their policies as a result. The LA County Tax Assessor will sell you a cd of all county parcels for a minimal amount now, for example. Other jurisdictions have taken other tacks. In Orange County, parcel data is jointly owned by the County (public) and the local utility company (private), which OC says exempts them from the AG opinion.

J said...

I was involved with an AGO in Florida back in 2003 against Palm Beach County in regards to a similar issue where they wanted $20,000 as a licensing/royality fee. The AG ruled in my favor and now you can download the Palm Beach County county parcel shapefiles for free off their FTP.
http://myfloridalegal.com/ago.nsf/aaee37715760bbce852563cc001bacf7/2639579ab297311d85256d970046709f!OpenDocument

In 2004 a company from Orlando sued Collier County, FL over the same issue and won in the Second District Court of Appeals.

http://www.2dca.org/opinion/December%2001,%202004/2D03-3346.pdf

Hopefully this case set a precident for Florida. It just takes time and enough people to raise a concern over the issue for most government entities (county, city, towns, etc.) to change their attitude as far as GIS data being considered public records.

You can now also get nearly statewide GIS parcel for 54 of the 67 counties in Florida for a total of $20 and all county Property Appraiser NAL files for a total of $38. Both from the Florida Department of Revenue.

You can read more about both of the above issues on my Florida GIS Data blogspot at http://www.gis-data.blogspot.com/

Darryl said...

I asked Fresno County for some data and they told me for each line or point it would cost $.01 plus something like $60 per hour for staff time. Somewhere along the line, it came out that I worked for a non-profit org so they wound up just charging me staff time. Needless to say, I received every parcel, street, land use designation in Fresno County for about $100.

Darryl said...

Land Surveyor,
I want to develop a training module for organizations I work with in Fresno County using open source GIS. I already do something similar using NKCA, Dataplace, and Infill Parcel Locator but want to provide more info. Got some great ideas on how to go about this but want to discuss it further with you if at all possible. Shoot me an email if you want to hear more darryl [at] calruralhousing dot org

Bruce Joffe said...

Santa Clara Ccounty's main argument is that their GIS basemap (in both shapefile format and geodatabase format) is software, wholly software. (!) The CA Public Records Act excludes "computer mapping systems" from public disclosure. The County's argument goes, 'computer systems' are comprised of hardware and software, GIS is not hardware, therefore it is software.

The CFAC will argue that data is not software. But who knows how technically savvy the judge may be? Any helpful suggestions, especially offers to write a "friend of the court" affidavit would be appreciated.

Send your comments to GIS.Consultants@joffes.com

LJK said...

There are several business factors that people should consider in their demand for all-things-government to be "free". Nothing is free, especially government. You pay one way or the other. You can either pay through fees or taxes. Would you rather cover the county’s multi-million dollar annual GIS costs through user fees from those people who use it or through taxes levied on everyone whether they use the service or not, OR would you like to see the service go away or diminish due to lack of funds? Counties are always in a financial predicament, given mandates by the state with no associated funding. Counties continually have to prioritize and choose where their limited funds will go. While many county departments are knowledgeable about the advantages of GIS, if they have to choose between funding GIS and funding one of their important department-specific projects (social services, human services, etc), you can imagine which budget will get the short shrift. Many counties were successfully leveraging some revenues from the sale of data and services to the public. A "pay for what you use" by "who uses" it model, a model which keeps the program alive. With no hope of outside funding, and the usual county budget issues, at best we can hope for a status quo. The ability to keep doing what we're doing, but no new data creation, no new services or products, no keeping up with the advances in technology. Reality is, we will probably slip backwards. There will be fewer resources (staff) to maintain the data which means less data being maintained and maybe at a lesser quality.

I don’t agree with a fee structure in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That is cost prohibitive for everyone, including all but the largest of corporations. But by obligating the counties to give the data away for free, we become inundated with requests “for everything”. Counties are then put into a position of redirecting a significant amount staff just to respond to the “free” requests.

Counties are a source of important data. Businesses, citizens, and other government agencies should be doing everything they can to support the enhancement of the GIS program, not its demise.

LJK said...

There are several business factors that people should consider in their demand for all-things-government to be "free". Nothing is free, especially government. You pay one way or the other. You can either pay through fees or taxes. Would you rather cover the county’s multi-million dollar annual GIS costs through user fees from those people who use it or through taxes levied on everyone whether they use the service or not, OR would you like to see the service go away or diminish due to lack of funds? Counties are always in a financial predicament, given mandates by the state with no associated funding. Counties continually have to prioritize and choose where their limited funds will go. While many county departments are knowledgeable about the advantages of GIS, if they have to choose between funding GIS and funding one of their important department-specific projects (social services, human services, etc), you can imagine which budget will get the short shrift. Many counties were successfully leveraging some revenues from the sale of data and services to the public to offset the high costs of a GIS program. A "pay for what you use" by "who uses it” model, a model which keeps the program alive. With no hope of outside funding, and the usual county budget issues, at best we can hope for a status quo. The ability to keep doing what we're doing, but no new data creation, no new services or products, no keeping up with the advances in technology. The reality is, we will probably slip backwards. There will be fewer resources (staff) to maintain the data which means less data being maintained and maybe at a lower quality.

I don’t agree with a fee structure in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That is cost-prohibitive for everyone, including all but the largest of corporations. But by obligating the counties to give the data away for free, we become inundated with requests “for everything”. Counties are put into a position of redirecting a significant amount staff from their regular mandated duties just to respond to the “free” requests.

Counties are a source of important data. Businesses, citizens, and other government agencies should be doing everything they can to support the enhancement of the GIS program, not its demise.

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