Update from Adina Levin: “I just heard from Sacramento — the bill sponsor has withdrawn the AB1978 and does not plan to resubmit it this year.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.