standard California Supreme Court Rules that GIS Data are Public Record

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After a lengthy battle in the court system, California’s highest court, its supreme court, has finally ruled in favor of allowing public access to the government’s GIS data in Orange County. Back in 2007, the Sierra Club sued the county for the right to use its GIS data for environmental mapping projects. Orange County resisted, however, claiming that the digital maps did not fall under the Public Records Act and wanted to charge the Sierra Club thousands of dollars for access to their databases. Notwithstanding, the California Supreme Court just ruled on July 8, 2013 that this GIS data should be handed over the public, a reversal of previous decisions. This ruling is being hailed as a victory for public access to government GIS databases and for more government transparency with its maps.

The case, which has raised all sorts of questions about the access and distribution of government information, had dragged on for many years. The saga first began in 2007 when the Sierra Club wrote a letter to Orange County, California requesting access to government GIS data. Their petition was filed under the California Public Records Act, which was passed in 1968 and authorized the disclosure of government records to the public when requested. The Sierra Club wanted access to the county’s GIS database called the OC Landbase. The OC Landbase contains geographic information on over 640,000 parcels of land including boundaries and the names, numbers, and addresses of parcel owners. The Sierra Club wanted this information in order to identify land that could be saved from commercial development.

Orange County, nonetheless, refused their request. The county claimed that because the databases existed in computer software format, the information was exempt under the Public Records Act. Furthermore, Orange County claimed that in order to have access, the Sierra Club would have to pay a substantial amount as a licensing fee in order to get the records in GIS-formatted files. On top of that, they would be required to follow strict rules regarding the disclosure and distribution of the database. When Orange County requested $375,000 for access to the OC Landbase, the Sierra Club sued. However, both the trial and the appellate courts ruled in favor of Orange County, and the case found its way to California’s Supreme Court.

On one hand, Orange County claimed that their GIS databases fall under the category of computer software, and electronic formats are not required to be released as public records unless the county can charge for them. Orange County also wanted to charge for the information at commercial prices instead of the relatively small cost of duplication. These exorbitant fees were set in place so that the county could recover some of the costs for putting the GIS databases together in the first place, an effort that cost Orange County over $3.5 million. Although it is understandable that Orange County wanted to protect its work, the county also charges some of the highest fees in the state for access to its data. Los Angeles County, for example, only charged the Sierra Club $10 for access to its datasets.

Throughout the court battles, the Sierra Club continued to defend its right to use the GIS data collected by Orange County. The arguments set forth from the organization have been based upon the value of GIS databases. The Sierra Club, along with other supporters, claimed that the information they wanted was critical, especially in its GIS-formatted state compared to a non-GIS-format. A GIS-formatted database is much more useful in that anyone can take this fundamental layer and build upon it according to their purposes. In this instance, the Sierra Club could take Orange County’s so-called base layer of information and use it for computerized analysis along with a vast array of other purposes related to property and land parcels. The Sierra Club refused Orange County’s offer of access to the GIS information in PDF format.

In the end, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Sierra Club, stating that GIS base layer in question held by Orange County did not fall under the category of computer software. In effect, the Supreme Court differentiated between the GIS database and the GIS mapping software. The court claimed that the GIS databases are a matter of public record whereas the mapping software used by the county is exempt from the Public Records Act. In its ruling, the California Supreme Court also upheld the right of the public to have access to GIS databases in order to keep the government accountable for its actions.

The hope is that this recent decision by the California Supreme Court in favor of the Sierra Club will make it easier for others to obtain GIS data from governments. Bruce Joffe, who founded the Open Data Consortium project which advocates for  accessible public geodata notes:

This is a landmark, precedent-setting decision for California and possibly for the rest of the country as well.  Public agencies will no longer be able to sell the data that they use to make public decisions, thereby impeding government transparency and accountability to the people they are supposed to serve.  The CA Supreme Court’s unanimous decision was clear and emphatic: government data must be provided to Public Record requesters in the same format that the government agency itself stores and uses for its own decision making.

This milestone decision did not come easily.  Orange County fought it all the way.  But the GIS community, aligned with the environmental community, newspaper publishers, and open government advocates worked together, persevering relentlessly, for the good of our society and our democracy.  The struggle is not over: liberty requires vigilance … and participation.

A wide variety of groups could use this mapping information for many different purposes. Many of these groups interested in obtaining government GIS data, including media organizations and advocacy groups, have been some of the most ardent supporters of the Sierra Club during its court battles. Overall, the case demonstrates the value of GIS data and some of the significant reasons why the public should have access to it.

References

“Digital Mapping Files are Public Records, State Supreme Court Rules” http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-adv-map-ruling-20130709,0,7721742.story

“Court: County’s GIS-Formatted Data are Public” http://calaware.org/awareness-area-environment/court-countys-gis-formatted-data-are-public

“Are GIS Database Public Record?” http://www.orcalegal.com/Articles.html

“The Open Data Consortium Project” http://opendataconsortium.net/

“Sierra Club versus the Superior Court of Orange County.” http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S194708.PDF

”Amicus Curiae Brief in Support of the Sierra Club.” http://www.courthousenews.com/2013/07/08/amicibrief.pdf

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