California Supreme Court Rules GIS Files Should Be Publicly Accessible

The final session I attended at the Esri User Conference was GIS and the Business of Government. In a very timely presentation, Bruce Joffe, from GIS Consultants, spoke about the impact of the recent California Supreme Court ruling requiring GIS data be subject to California public records laws.

Joffe provided an in-depth look at the legal process to win the case and provided an overview of the necessity of making GIS data available under public record law. The ruling was a big win for open government proponents. Prior to the ruling, to access GIS data, a citizen would have to pay for access to information. In Orange County, California, they were charging 375,000 to release the data. Many counties across California had similar fees.

California is not alone in this policy; across the country counties have very similar policies in which citizens can pay for access to GIS files. A common alternative by counties and cities is to just provide the information in an alternative format. This means providing potentially thousands of PDF and record files that contain all the information in a GIS database, which effectively is useless to the citizen. The data in the GIS becomes highly valuable, because then agencies can look at relationships and visualize different scenarios.

One example that Joffe provided was using parcel data to look at property tax rates, to understand how tax rates compare between locations. There are all sorts of different variables that can be run or looked at – distance from parks, distance from schools, and then the property tax rate. Looking at these variables in isolation does not provide enough contexts to make an informed decision for a citizen.

Although this is a big ruling, and great step forward for open government advocates, there is still a lot of work to be done. Still unclear is if an agency can charge other governments for access to information. One of the participants during the Q & A session said he couldn’t believe that he was charged for access to data from another agency, and another questioned why data could not be shared freely between state and county.

I think these are compelling answers that the legal process will likely explore. At the heart of the issues really understands the value of the data, and the power by making it open and accessible. This is what makes an open and transparent government. Additionally, inter-agency collaboration would remove duplication, cut costs and potential streamline processes – so the fee to access data internally in some ways indicates not fully grasping the power of the GIS investment the county has made.

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Henry Brown

Suspect that this is less an issue of public access vs the cost of the access…

The Sierra club requested the records from Orange County and Orange County said that will be $375,000 please.

The state Supreme Court said “such databases are public records and must be provided at the actual cost of duplication”

Which 47 of the 58 counties already do…

Pat Fiorenza

thanks for your comment, Henry. Yes – it was an issue of cost. I want to do a little more research, but my impression from the session was that it is very common across the US to charge for access to GIS files.

Samantha Holquist

I agree with the Supreme Court, citizens should not have to pay for access to information. I wonder how many states currently force citizens to pay for information