In California and Support Open Geo Data? Oppose AB 1978

Update from Adina Levin: “I just heard from Sacramento — the bill sponsor has withdrawn the AB1978 and does not plan to resubmit it this year. In other words, the bill is dead.” Congrats people

When I relocated from the UK, my expectation was a welcome rest from struggles with absurd licensing schemes of government data. Well, Nope. Read this and act and write your California representative. More information here as well.

US Federal Law requires that all all works created by US government agencies are public domain, excepting classified material. This doesn’t require the works be released for free, that’s what the Freedom of Information Act instruments. But in practice, many agencies simply release data, resulting in primary public domain geodata sets like TIGER (the US basis for Navteq, TeleAtlas and OpenStreetMap), NGA Geonames (core component of Geonames), VMAP0, Landsat, and USGS Topos and Orthophotos. It’s a valid point that without a cost recovery mechanism, funds for maintaining and updating these data sets dries up, and the data quality suffers; this has been particularly true of the USGS. But I’d rather start to find solutions from the assumption of free and open to the public, rather than the other way around, and in practice the web and community of open geo data have stepped up to fill this role.

However this federal law doesn’t hold for state and local geo data. And as common in the States, there’s a whole spectrum of policies from public domain to commercial level fees. It’s almost the opposite of the UK, where national data is non-free, and local authorities would like to release their data, if only the OS wouldn’t claim derivative rights over that data.

Santa Clara County started charging high fees for distribution of its geodata. They were sued and California courts ruled that costs can only cover the cost of distribution. And really for digital data the cost of distribution is nearly zero. At the time this was going on I surveyed the terra nullius of new suburban subdivisions in Santa Clara and thought it a damn shame these data sources should disappear.

Well now, Assembly member Jose Solorio’s AB1978 is attempting an end around this ruling by extending the definition of exempt materials (usually classified public safety stuff, think precise locations of critical infrastructure) to “assembled model data, metadata, and listings of metadata”. Vague and ambiguous, the intended effect of this change would allow local governments to reinstate high commercial fees for access to their geodata. As stated here, “Rather than clarifying the Public Records Act, his bill’s proposed paragraph would make the Act more ambiguous, confusing, mis-informed, and obstructive of the public’s right to obtain its government’s records.”

If you’re in California and care about such things, write your representatives.


In a similar vein, I think about the trend of municipalities releasing their geodata for inclusion in Google Maps and Earth. In exchange for some small compensation and maybe some free copies of Google Earth Pro, cities happily give up the goods. Which is great, in part, as that data has been collected with taxpayer money and should be made available to the widest audience possible — and Google certainly has that. One town has gone all the way and has outsourced published all its geodata for collect Google actually, Jason Birch clarifies in the comments: they publicly published their geodata in KML, though orthophotos are only served by Google due to licensing restrictions . But but .. the data is still not truly free and available to any other company or hacker or activist to use. With disappointment, Google’s only motivation is to get that data into Google, not the public. The same is true of Google Transit, where special deals are made to release data to Google and no one else, something UrbanMapping is fighting the good fight on.


Working for government action at the national level is like moving a mountain range. There’s much more possibility to have an affect in your local government. Oakland Crimespotting motivated the Oakland PD to release their data in a machine readable format. Merano Italy released a treasure trove of CC-SA data. Inspire your local government with these examples and others, and push for truly free and open data .. leading to democracy, participation, and an inventive public life.

8 Comments

  1. Jason Birch said,

    April 2, 2008 @ 12:12 am

    Hi Mikel,

    Although the article on Nanaimo contains wording that makes it sound like we gave our data to Google, what we are actually doing is publishing the data in KML format. The only data of ours that Google serves is our orthophotos.

    The imagery is certainly an area of weakness because of the terms of our last ortho capture contract, but hopefully we will be able to specify an open data license next time. Redistribution will be an issue (we don’t have the capacity in-house) but maybe OAM is the answer.

    Jason

  2. mikel said,

    April 2, 2008 @ 1:10 am

    Thanks for the clarification Jason .. and apologies, should have gathered more information on the state of geodata in your town. It’s great you are making these moves — cooperating both with Google and getting the data out there. Unfortunately, not every town has the services of someone as clued in as you, and I’m afraid other towns won’t be pushed to be so open.

  3. Jason Birch said,

    April 2, 2008 @ 5:48 am

    Oh, I definitely agree with you there. Your suggestion of citizen involvement at a local scale is a great one. Local polititians tend to be relatively responsive to public pressure.

  4. mikel said,

    April 2, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

    posted on behalf of Joe Hughes

    Hi Mikel,

    Google is actually a proponent of open transit data–as it happens, I
    wrote an official
    blog post
    on that very topic last week. BTW, if you’re interested
    in learning more about the transit data efforts that are going on in
    the developer community, check out the Transit Developers mailing list.

    Anyway, thanks for shining a light on this bill. I think that AB 1978
    would be a step backwards for California and a bad example for the
    rest of the country.

    Joe Hughes
    http://headwayblog.com

  5. Jonathan W. Lowe said,

    April 6, 2008 @ 7:42 am

    For additional detail on the bill, interpretation of its content and suggestions about who to write to (hopefully with objections to the bill!) see also this article by Bruce Joffe: http://gismap.geospatial-solutions.com/gssgismap/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=507369&pageID=1&sk=&date=

  6. Adina Levin said,

    April 6, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

    Hi, Mikel,

    There is a hearing on the bill scheduled for April 16th in the Governmental Organization (though the committee clerk says it could be postponed to the 23rd).

    For folks who live in California, the things to do are (in this order)
    * contact your rep
    * contact the chair of the Governmental Organization Committee.
    * contact the members of the committee.
    http://www.assembly.ca.gov/acs/newcomframeset.asp?committee=9

    When you call, state your name, and that you are calling to oppose AB1978. (It’s important to state the bill number). Tell them why you oppose the bill, and be polite and brief (the staffers deal with a *lot* of callers on many topics).

    Let’s not let this bad bill sneak through.

    - Adina

  7. Adina Levin said,

    April 9, 2008 @ 2:23 am

    I just heard from Sacramento — the bill sponsor has withdrawn the AB1978 and does not plan to resubmit it this year. In other words, the bill is dead.

    The bill had received little support and a lot of opposition.

    Thanks to everyone who helped spread the word and contact your legislators. You all helped kill this bad bill.

  8. Aaron Bodbyl-Mast said,

    April 10, 2008 @ 5:06 am

    As a GIS professional at the local level, I agree and disagree with you. I like the spirit of your comment here:

    “But I’d rather start to find solutions from the assumption of free and open to the public, rather than the other way around, and in practice the web and community of open geo data have stepped up to fill this role.”

    The problem with this is that governments have built their GIS infrastructure based on a pay system. For instance, in my County, the cities and townships pay for access to the data and support from our department. It would be difficult for us to turn around now and put all our data out there for free.

    We do what we can, but it is a balance, especially when we are constantly requesting new large purchases such as new high-quality ortho photos, oblique photos, LiDAR scans, etc. Even if we bought these items as resales (when Microsoft or Google has already paid initial fees) it is still expensive.

    Also, most requests for large datasets come from large companies, not citizens. If we receive requests from non-profits or universities, we usually can work out a data exchange.

    For more on this check this post: http://bodbrain.blogspot.com/2008/04/geocode-money.html

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