Tag Archive | Freedom of Information

Ohio Court: Geodata Intertwined with Proprietary Software Falls Outside Open Records Law

Supreme Court Rules County Engineer’s Response Met Requirements of Public Records Act

by Dennis Whalen, CNO, March 7, 2013

The Supreme Court of Ohio today denied a writ of mandamus sought by Portsmouth real estate appraiser Robert Gambill to compel the production of certain public records by Scioto County Engineer Craig Opperman.In a 6-1 per curiam opinion, the court held that Opperman met the requirements of the Ohio Public Records Act by offering to provide Gambill with a copy of the county’s electronic database containing deed information and aerial photos of all property in the county if Gambill paid the estimated $2,000 cost of separating that data from proprietary mapmaking software protected by U.S. patent laws that is “inextricably intertwined” with the data on the engineer’s computer.

For full text of the article, visit Supreme Court Rules County Engineer’s Response Met Requirements of Public Records Act.

Related Articles:

See also High Court Rules in Favor of County (Portsmouth Daily Times), Ohio Court: Geodata Intertwined with Copyright-protected Software Falls Outside Open Records Law (Directions Magazine).

Similar Cases:

Sierra Club loses on appeal in case for access to Orange County database (Directions Magazine 2011)

The WireData Case and Implications for Geospatial Data (WI State Cartographer’s Office 2008)


New York newspaper defends identifying and mapping gun owners

By Katie Glueck, Politico, December 26, 2012

A suburban New York newspaper on Wednesday defended a decision to publish online maps that reveal names and addresses of people with gun licenses in several counties near New York City. … Over the weekend, the White Plains-based Journal News offered interactive maps of Westchester and Rockland counties which gave names and locations of people with pistol permits that the paper had obtained through the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The piece sparked uproar on the right and among some readers this week.

For full text of the article, please visit: New York newspaper defends identifying gun owners – Katie Glueck – POLITICO.com. Click here to see the interactive Map of the gun permits in Westchester county, NY.

Related Articles:

From Public Records to Open Government: Access to Massachusetts Municipal Geographic Data

by Robert Goodspeed, URISA Journal 2011, Volume 23, No 2

Abstract: Increasingly, citizens are demanding access to raw data from governments to hold public officials accountable, look up facts, conduct analysis, or create innovative applications and services. Cities and towns create data using geographic information systems such as layers describing parcels, zoning, and infrastructure that are useful for a wide range of purposes. Through a public records request to all 351 Massachusetts municipalities, this paper investigates whether these data are accessible to citizens in practice. Some response was received by 78.6 percent of the municipalities. Two municipalities refused access to all electronic records. Many others charged fees ranging up to $453 or placed legal restrictions on the data through licensing that could chill or prohibit creative reuses of the information through emerging technologies. Other practical barriers limited public access to data, such as limited resources, government officials’ limited technical knowledge, and outsourcing to private vendors. A followup survey among municipalities that did not respond to the request was conducted to determine if they had GIS systems or data policies, and this information was collected for 80.3 percent of the municipalities. Finally, the paper discusses the legal, policy, and technical steps that can be taken by governments to move from a “public records” to an “open government” paradigm for transparency of government data. The policy recommendations for municipalities include publishing GIS data for free online and with minimal legal restrictions.

For full text of the article, click here.

Practical guidelines for open data licensing have been published in the United Kingdom

Thanks to Kevin Pomfret for passing along the following link:

by Katleen Janssen, EPSI Platform, 27 May 2011

Naomi Korn and Charles Oppenheim have prepared a Practical Guide for Licensing Open Data, targeting organisations that want to use open data and want to understand under which terms they can use data licensed by third parties. The Guide relies on work done by the Strategic Content Alliance and JISC projects related to digital content, including Web2Rights. The Guide provides short information on some of the most important legal domains that need to be taken into account when licensing open data (intellectual property rights, contract law, data protection, freedom of information, and breach of confidence). It explains the commonly known open licence models…

For full text of the article, click Licensing Open Data: A Practical Guide at EPSI Platform.

From Public Access to Open Government: Access to GIS Data


From Public Records to Open Government: Access to Massachusetts Municipal Geographic Data

Robert Goodspeed, PhD Student, MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Submitted for publication to URISA Journal, January 2011


Increasingly citizens are demanding access of raw data from governments to look up facts, hold them accountable, conduct analysis, or create innovative applications and services. Cities and towns create information for geographic information systems such as parcels, zoning, and infrastructure that are useful for a wide range of purposes. Through a public records request to all 351 Massachusetts municipalities, this paper investigates whether this data is accessible to citizens in practice. In an apparent violation of the law, two municipalities refused access to electronic records. Many others charged fees ranging up to $453 or placed burdensome legal restrictions on the data that could chill or prohibit creative reuses of the data through emerging technologies. Other practical barriers, such as limited technical knowledge or resources and outsourcing to private vendors, restricted public access to data. Most troubling, 23.2% of municipalities did not respond with 29 days, nearly three times the legally mandated 10-day response time. Finally, the paper discusses legal, policy, and technical steps that can be taken by governments to move from a “public records” to an “open government” paradigm for transparency of government data. The policy recommendations for municipalities include publishing GIS data for free online, and with minimal legal restrictions.

For full text of the article, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, click here.


Farm Bill Restricts Access to CLU GIS Data – Part 3



In order to assess land cover in agricultural areas across the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the Common Land Unit (CLU) as a standardized GIS data layer (see also ArcUser Online, ESRI, April – June 2002).

Due to language in this year’s Farm Bill (Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008), however, CLU GIS data are no longer releasable to the general public or to most other government agencies (CLU Info Sheet, June 2008). See my prior  blog posts for information on the court battle and subsequent language in the Farm Bill:

On a related note, the National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) posted the following FOIA guidelines for NRCS programs, as per the statutory language of the Farm Bill:

Section 1244 of the Farm Bill includes specific statutory language pertaining to the release of technical and financial assistance information. Technical and financial information includes all information given by cooperators to USDA for the purpose of providing technical or financial assistance to an owner, operator, or producer with respect to any natural resources conservation program administered by the NRCS or FSA. It also includes information that is proprietary to the agricultural operation or land that is part of an agricultural operation of the owner, operator, or producer. It does not include payment information, including payment amounts and the names of payment recipients. .. In general, NRCS technical and financial information is not releasable to the public, and It cannot be released to any person, Federal agency, local agency, or Indian tribe outside of USDA.

Recently, I came across a position paper by AgriData, Inc. (August 28, 2008) that summarizes the impact of the CLU GIS data restriction to farmers and service providers:
Roger Johnson, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner, submitted this position paper for consideration during the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) annual meeting in September 2008.  In the internal NASDA action item form, titled “Farm Bill 1619 – Public Access to CLU Data,” Johnson asked that NASDA support an amendment to Section 1619 of the 2008 Farm Bill. This amendment, if passed, would allow the CLU data to be placed back into the public domain,  with the following attributes: Field Boundary, Acres, Tract Number, Farm Number, Field Number, Primary Classification of Land Unit Type, Administrating County, State Office.

 The CLU GIS data restirction is also a hot issue for the North Dakota Association of Counties’ GIS in Agland Valuation Forum.  On October 2, 2008, someone on the forum posted a letter by the Tax Commissioner for the State of North Dakota addressed to county tax directors. The letter states:

“House Bill (HB) 1303, passed by the 2007 North Dakota Legislative Assembly, amended North Dakota Century Code § 57-02-27.2(8). This law now requires local assessors to consider soil type and soil classification data from detailed or general soil surveys, the schedule of modifiers to be used within the county, and actual use of the property for cropland or noncropland purposes, when forming the relative value of each assessment parcel under their responsibility.

In March of this year, to assist you and your local assessors in carrying out the duties specified in HB 1303, I asked our office to send a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request to the United States Department of Agriculture – Farm Service Agency (USDA-FSA). The FOIA request sought releasable information County FSA offices may have in their possession pertaining to field delineations and use of agricultural lands in North Dakota.

Specifically, the request sought common land unit (CLU) data collected and maintained by USDA-FSA. The objective was to enable the CLU information, if made available, to be shared with your office for use by you and your assessors when making land valuation determinations required by HB 1303.

Our FOIA request was denied. The 2008 Farm Bill specifically barred new or updated CLU data from release to the public. Thus, any appeal of the denial would likely fail.”


Read More…

Are Municipal GIS Data Subject to Open Records Law? Greenwich Take 2


Greenwich v. FOI Commission, the court battle in Greenwich,  CT that sparked debate across the country regarding the sale of public data, and the balance between security and privacy, continues. On May 15, 2008, Erin Lynch of the Fairfield County Weekly reported that the Town of Greenwich, Connecticut, is appealing a 2006 decision by the Freedom of Information Commission requiring the release of aerial imagery maintained in its municipal GIS database:

In an effort to overturn a state Freedom of Information Commission ruling, Greenwich is appealing a 2006 decision that not only found the town was in violation of the law, but could save a former First Selectman from paying a $100 fine. Question: at what cost to taxpayers?

The FOI Commission slapped the former selectman, Jim Lash, with the fine in 2006 after it ruled that he withheld public documents from Greenwich resident Stephen Whitaker. The town is appealing the decision in New Britain Superior Court, and oral arguments for the case are expected to begin next month.

The ruling stems from a 2001 incident in which Whitaker requested access to Greenwich‘s Geographic Information System (GIS), a municipal database with property information and aerial photos. In 2002, the commission ruled in Whitaker’s favor, but the decision was appealed by the town. Whitaker ultimately won access to the documents in 2005, but the town is still battling over whether he is allowed access to updates to the GIS system—something the tonier-than-thou town says could be a security risk. …

For full text of this article, visit http://www.fairfieldweekly.com/article.cfm?aid=7848

Source: Fairfield County Weekly


Are County GIS Data Subject to State Open Records Law?

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the Wisconsin Land Information Association’s regional meeting on June 5th in Wausau, WI will focus on data policy issues, including public access to government geodata.  One of the invited speakers, Bruce Joffe of GIS Consultants, will review last year’s State of California Superior Court’s decision California First Amendment Coalition v. Santa Clara County, which directed the County to provide its parcel basemap data for the cost of duplication, as required by the California Public Records Act. Prior to this suit, Santa Clara County charged over $100,000 for its public data. This case caused a ripple effect, impacting county geodata policy throughout California.  Bruce also will discuss the subsequent case in California’s 6th Appeallate Court of Appeals, which raised more questions, including are GIS basemap data  protected under the Critical Infrastructure Information Act of 2002?

The California First Amendment Coalition summarized the original case as follows:

In a lawsuit filed by the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC), the Superior Court for Santa Clara County affirmed that the basemap, which is the foundation for the county’s Geographic Information System, or GIS, is a public record to which the county can no longer limit access to just a small number of  purchasers willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fees. (The case is CFAC v. Santa Clara County, No. 1-06-CV-072630.)

GIS technology provides a 3-D display, on maps, of information in a relational database. In effect, it allows a visual depiction, with precise locations, of the results of statistical analyses. Think Google Earth but with a local focus and specialized data. Used together with other publicly available data, the basemap allows citizens to monitor their local government on matters ranging from property tax assessments to zoning variances to street repairs.

The basemap will also enable journalists to do reporting that would not otherwise be possible. For example, reporters and bloggers could write stories that assess whether poor neighborhoods  are being shortchanged for road repairs. Data on crime statistics, census information, political party affiliations, campaign contributions, environmental hazards and school test score results could be analyzed to spot trends and to test the validity of government policy assumptions and prescriptions. …

In a 27-page decision, Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg rejected the county’s arguments that it could withhold the GIS basemap files because of their claimed status as computer software, and because the files allegedly contain “trade secrets” protected from disclosure under state and federal law. The court concluded the basemap consisted of data, not software. And it found that the county, by selling the basemap to private entities, had waived any trade secret protection to which the records otherwise might be entitled. …

The court found that federal copyright protection did not permit the county to deny a valid request under California’s Public Records Act. The court also turned aside the county’s attempt to avoid releasing the records by getting them designated  “Critical Infrastructure Information” (CII) by the federal Department of Homeland Security. The court noted that this designation was sought only after CFAC filed suit, and despite the county’s past sales of the GIS basemap to 15 purchasers, five of them private companies.

The court said that, while some of the data in the basemap–relating to the location of easements for pipelines carrying water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir–might possibly qualify for the CII designation, the county had not met its burden of withholding the entire basemap on that basis. CFAC, while expressing doubt about the sensitivity of the information about the Hetch-Hetchy water easements, said in its briefs that it would be willing to accept the basemap with the pipeline information stripped out, if necessary.

Only 13 of California’s 58 counties currently limit access to their GIS by charging substantially more than the cost of reproduction for access. Of these, Santa Clara’s fees are the highest–over $100,000 for purchase of the full basemap. Orange County observes a similar policy. Both Los Angeles and San Diego Counties recently lifted restriction and use fees for access to their GIS basemaps. … 

For the full text, visit: http://www.cfac.org/content/litigation/santaclara.php

Source: CFAC, May 22, 2008.

To date, seventy-eight GIS professionals and GIS organizations, such as the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (USGIS), have endorsed Bruce Joffe’s Amicus Brief, which will be released next week.

The complete text of the original court case: http://www.cfac.org/content/cfac_v_santaclara.PDF
The appeals court case brief: http://www.cfac.org/content/litigation/main_brief_appeal_SantaClara.pdf


For more information and comments on this topic, visit the following links:


Disclosure of Public Land Records

In 2004, Data Tree, a national company that collects and provides online access to millions public land records, requested copies of electronic land records maintained by the Suffolk County Clerk’s Office. Public land records include such things as deeds, mortgages, liens, judgments, releases and maps. The Clerk denied this Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request because it required reformatting the data, because disclosure might constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy, and because the records were available from terminals within the Clerk’s Office. See Data Tree, LLC v. Romaine (9 N.Y.3d 454, 849 N.Y.S.2d 489).

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