Yes, GIS Files Are Public Data, Too

California affirms that cities can't withhold digital mapping information.

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Back in 2007, the Sierra Club requested a copy of what it thought was a public record from Orange County, California, covering information like the location and addresses of 640,000 land parcels in the county. The local government held the information in a geographic information system, or GIS database, a much more modern equivalent of the old spreadsheet, or the older-still stack of printed papers. In exchange for handing over a copy of the digital file, which can be used to map data, the county requested a $375,000 licensing fee.

As you can imagine, the Sierra Club balked – both at the price tag and the suggestion that this taxpayer-funded database of public information wasn't available under the state's open records law. Six years later, the California Supreme Court this week agreed with the Sierra Club [PDF] that digital mapping data is public data, too.

To underscore the strange nature of Orange County's logic, local officials had offered to hand over all of the information on printed paper. But they argued that GIS files were "computer software," and therefore exempt from the state records law (and open to a revenue stream that would help recoup the costs of maintaining the database).

"When the government already has [the information] in that format, there’s no excuse for withholding it from the public in that format," says Mark Rumold, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Sierra Club. "It’s another question if the government has to go through tremendous cost and expense to produce them, to get them into a particular format. But when taxpayers are paying for the record to be created in that format, and there’s tremendous informational value that can be gleaned form those records, there’s really no excuse."

According to the court's ruling, over 80 percent of California counties already consider GIS databases public records.

The central issue isn't simply about property data. Much of the public data held by local governments – on parking tickets, building code violations, crime incidents – contains a spatial component, and so might be held in this kind of GIS file. Put information in that format, and it also becomes much more valuable... which is also why Orange County seemed to believe they could charge a lot of money for it.

"There’s tremendous value, not just in GIS databases, but in any type of public record when the records can be read by a machine," Rumold says. "There’s tremendous amounts of analytics that can be done. That’s true across the board, whether it’s for property records of IRS tax return information, or anything else."

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About the Authors

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
  • Sara Johnson is a former fellow at CityLab.