One of my students recently shared something that I considered to be a thought-provoking analogy in the “fee vs. free” geospatial data debate that we included in our book and discuss on this blog. The debate, in sum, revolves around the issue, “Should government data providers charge a fee for their geospatial data, or should they provide the data for free?”
The student commented, “I tend toward the “at cost” position of the debate for local governments and free side of the debate for federal data. For me, the “tax dollars are used to create the data so it has already been paid for argument” does not hold water. Taxpayers have no expectation (or shouldn’t have) of walking into the local parks department to borrow a shovel that in theory their tax dollars paid for. The same logic could be applied to spatial assets.” The student went on to say that the above argument should be applied to local and regional government data, because “federal level data […] tends to be more directly reflective of the population and the federal government more directly benefits from the economic opportunities created by free data.”
While I have tended to advocate on the side that geospatial data should be freely available, I believe that the student’s snow shovel analogy for local governments has merit. Following this argument, a small fee for data requested that is over and above what that government agency provides on its website seems reasonable. But I still am firmly on the side of that government providing at least some geospatial data for free on its website, citing the numerous benefits as documented in case studies in this blog and in our book. These benefits range from positive public relations, saving lives and property in emergency situations, and saving time in processing requests from data users. Consider what one person can do with the snow shovel versus what one person could do with a geospatial data such as a flood dataset. The shovel might help dredge a small section to help a few neighbors get out of their houses, but the flood dataset could help identify hundreds of houses at risk and provide a permanent, effectively managed solution. There is an order of magnitude difference in the benefit to be gained from making geospatial data easily and freely available.
What are your thoughts on this important issue? We invite you to share your thoughts below.
A new article entitled “Facilitating open exchange of data and information” published in the January 2015 issue of Springer’s Earth Science Informatics journal has strong ties to the discussions we have had on this blog and in our book, namely to developments in and implications of open data. In the article, authors James Gallagher, John Orcutt, Pauline Simpson, Dawn Wright, Jay Pearlman, and Lisa Raymond are clear that while open data offers great value, there are “a number of complex, and sometimes contentious, issues that the science community must address.”
In the article, the authors examine the current state of the core issues of Open Data, including interoperability; discovery and access; quality and fitness for purpose; and sustainability. The authors also address topics of governance and data publication. I very much like the approach that the authors take–they don’t sugar coat these issues, but acknowledge that “each of the areas covered are, by themselves, complex and the approaches to the issues under consideration are often at odds with each other.” Indeed, “any comprehensive policy on Open Data will require compromises that are best resolved by broad community input.”
The authors’ research stemmed from the activities of an Open Data Working Group as part of the NSF-funded OceanObs Research Coordination Network, and hence has an ocean and atmosphere focus. On a related note, in this blog, we recently wrote about crowd sourcing coastal water navigational data. However, the open data implications that the authors describe span all disciplines that care about location.
The authors cover many topics germane to the purpose of our book and blog, and cover it so well, from their treatment of copyright and creative commons to their down-to-earth realistic recommendations that the community must do to move forward, that I consider this article “required reading” for anyone interested in open geospatial data.
The Minneapolis St Paul regional GIS council (MetroGIS) conducted research that was in part based on a policy call to individual counties in their metropolitan area for free and open data. The results, reported here, along with related links and publications, provide excellent information about the current state of free and open data in the GIS council’s region. More importantly, beyond this particular metropolitan area, the documents include succinct and compelling arguments for the benefits to any local government in making its data open and freely available. These include transparency of operations, improved public service, ease of data access, savings in terms of staff time, meeting public demand, improved inter-agency work relationships, and faster decision making. It fits into the notion of data as an important component of public infrastructure, created to serve the public good, and fundamental to wise decision making.
This MetroGIS site is also of value because it provides a resolution for support for free and open public geospatial data, a sample letter of support, and links to related articles and publications. In short, the MetroGIS staff provides insight to the decisions that have brought their organization to this point. The results of their research is of great assistance to those grappling with whether and how to serve their own spatial data.
In the related resources provided, that may be of particular interest to the readers of the Spatial Reserves blog, includes NSGIC President Ivan Weichert’s essay This Isn’t Private Information, on locational privacy, arguing that if some privacy issues are enacted, it would destroy the government’s ability to conduct its business, and negatively affect government and commercial services that citizens expect and demand. Another item of interest is Brian Timoney’s The Flawed Economics of Closed Government Data, where, in his usual straightforward style, he argues against the “cost recovery” model for government agency provision of data.
In our book on GIS and Public Domain Data, we describe several court cases that illustrate the ongoing debates and ways of thinking about the value of public domain spatial data, who should pay for it, and who should have access to it. One of the most famous cases is that of the Sierra Club vs. Orange County California. To recap, the Sierra Club is suing Orange County for access to its GIS-compatible digital parcel basemap database under terms of the California Public Records Act that include paying no more than the direct cost of duplication. Orange County has been requiring users of its “OC Landbase” to pay USD $475,000, plus sign a license that restricts sharing or redistribution of its database.
Although Orange County abruptly reduced its price late in December 2011, the case has been going on since 2009. At stake is whether the public has unfettered access to the GIS-compatible data that its government agencies use to conduct “the public’s business,” in the same geodatabase format that the agencies themselves use, or whether the government can license, restrict and charge high prices for such access. As more and more governmental decisions and actions are based on GIS analysis, the issue is central to governmental transparency and accountability to citizens.
The California Public Records Act states in §6253.9 that any agency that has information which constitutes identifiable public records in electronic format, shall make the information available in the electronic format in which it holds the information, and that the agency shall provide a copy of the electronic records if the requested format is one that has been used by the agency to create copies for its own use, or for provision to other agencies. Further, the section states that the cost of duplication shall be limited to the direct cost of producing a copy of the records in the electronic format. The crux of Orange County’s argument is that its GIS-formatted database is exempted under §6254.9, the so-called “software exemption.”
Sierra Club, joined by 212 individual GIS professionals and 23 professional GIS organizations who co-signed one amicus brief among seven supportive amicus briefs, contend that “computer mapping systems” refers only to software, not to the data on which the software operates. Further, it has asserted that .pdf files are not equivalent to a GIS-compatible database, and that the public’s right to inspect and review the exact same data that Orange County uses to make its decisions would be curtailed by .pdf-only data.
Keep watching this blog for updates on this and other issues in the rapidly changing landscape of public domain spatial data. How do you think this case will turn out?
A recent article in The Economist [http://earsc.org/news/something-to-watch-over-us?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter] makes a case that governments are spending too little on collecting information via Earth-observing satellites. Starting with the news from 8 April 2012, when Envisat ceasing to communicate with observers, the article quotes a US National Academies report that states that the number of such satellites flown by the US government is likely to decline from 23 today to 6 in 2010, with the number of instruments declining from 90 to 20, with a potentially serious decline in Europe as well.
The article is significant for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a widely read and non-GIS journal such as The Economist is publishing something so central to GIS and remote sensing indicates that topics that were formerly only near to the geospatial community’s heart are now making their way to the general public.
Jill Clark and I make a case in The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data that government-supported satellite programs have helped spawn enormous growth in derivative data, services, and research in private industry, government, and academia. But those programs carry with them large costs. How much of these costs should be borne by government-sponsored data collection, and how much should be borne by private industry? And if some of the programs are paid for by governments, and ultimately, citizens, shouldn’t citizens have access to the resulting data? If so, should they have to pay a user fee for it? Should that data be copyrighted?