Freedom of Information: Battleship metadata

Pub date March 11, 2008
WriterSarah Phelan


On Valentine’s Day, Assemblymember Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana) introduced Assembly Bill 1978, legislation that seeks to define computer mapping systems and make them available to commercial interests at a fee — a one-two punch that freedom of information advocates fear constitutes a serious blow to the California Public Records Act.

Noting that computer mapping systems, computer programs, and computer graphic systems do not constitute public records under current law, Solorio’s bill seeks to amend the CPRA to define computer mapping systems to include "assembled model data, metadata, and listings of metadata, regardless of medium, and tools by which computer mapping systems are created, stored, and retrieved."

AB 1978 would also allow "commercial interests, who are most benefited by these systems, to obtain the portion of these systems developed by a public agency, at a fee designed to offset the agency’s cost of maintenance for the computer mapping systems."

But Oakland-based Bruce Joffe, who works as a geographic information consultant to cities, counties, and state agencies in California, warns that AB 1978 would allow public agencies to charge the public more for this data than the cost of duplication.

"It would severely weaken the CPRA and reduce the public’s access to government records," said Joffe, noting that as the law currently stands, CPRA requires state and local agencies to make their records available and, upon request, to provide copies on payment of any applicable fee.

Solorio aide Hazel Miranda told the Guardian that the intent of the bill is to protect software, not to restrict access to information.

"Our intent is to protect the software, not to restrict the information that is given out on it," Miranda said, noting that the bill’s sponsor is the government of Orange County. "The concern was that a lot of corporations were taking this information — and when the information is given out, you have to give out the software, too — and using it to their own benefit."

Joffe, who was the California First Amendment Coalition’s technical advisor when CFAC successfully sued Santa Clara County over access to the county’s tax maps, disagrees.

"When you give information out, you are not giving out software, you are giving out data in export format," said Joffe, who believes Solorio wants to change the law so that AB 1978’s sponsor, Orange County, which has sold its tax maps for $400,000 in the past, can continue to sell its data.

Holly Fraumeni, the AB 1978 lobbyist with the well-connected firm Putf8um Advisors, deferred questions to Bruce Matthias of Orange County’s legislative affairs, who told us, "The County of Orange has never disagreed on sharing public data. We are not trying to hide data down here. If you want it on a disk, we charge 25 cents. All we are doing is updating language in the bill. Our exclusive intent is to protect the software we’ve developed." Records show Orange County paid Putf8um Advisors $60,000 between October 1 and December 31, 2007.

CFAC executive director Peter Scheer believes AB 1978 is an attempt to take the information that CFAC has tried to make freely available and put it back under lock and key, so that it is proprietary information that can be sold.

Recalling how, years ago, the only way you could see a county’s tax maps was as an engineer’s rendering on paper, Scheer observed that when this data is computerized and made publicly available, "individuals and businesses can create all kinds of valuable tools or simply post the raw data on the Internet."

Blair Adams, chief consulting officer at San Francisco’s Department of Technology and Information Services, says the city’s GIS data has been publicly available for five years.

"We have no intent to change that," Adams said. "Our motto is ‘Go have it, and help us make it better.’<0x2009>"

But while San Francisco treats this data as a public record and copies it for the price of a blank DVD, Santa Clara and Orange counties have treated it as a revenue generator.

"They charge an arm and a leg, and another arm and leg, and whatever other appendages they can think of," said Scheer, noting that Santa Clara County charges $100,000 for a full base map of its real estate parcels — data that can be used to determine whether properties are assessed correctly, and whether pothole repairs are carried out equitably.

"Likely clients willing to purchase this data would be utilities, phone companies, and developers, who can’t do without it," Scheer said. "But public health and safety departments need access to it, too."

Joffe agrees, and it’s something he has plenty of experience with. He helps cities and counties create geographic information systems that allow ambulances to take the most efficient routes, the Department of Public Works to carry out better capital improvements, and the police to conduct better crime analysis.

"Every department uses it, and because it’s in the government system, therefore it is a public record, and the public has the right to access those records at no more cost than it takes to duplicate them," Joffe said. He added, "If AB 1978 passes, we’ll lose considerable access."