Geocode the Money

The state of California is reviewing legislation to allow local governments to charge for GIS data. Slashgeo links to citizens opposing the bill (actually, the bill is already dead). More here.

Apparently, this bill was the culmination of a long battle to force governments to make their GIS data available for the cost of copying, not the cost of generating it. Here is some background from the Open Data Consortium Project. It appears that courts have ruled against local governments who still are trying to recover costs by charging for GIS data. According to blogger Adina Levin, Orange County was pushing the bill.

Here in Michigan, there is already a law which allows government to charge for digital data (not just GIS). The law, with a classic Orwellian title of the Enhanced Access to Public Records Act, can be found here. This bill specifically mentions GIS, but I know that other public officials were fighting for this. As a reporter, I sat in on meetings were the County Clerk complained about people requesting voting records. In the digital age, the records can be easily provided at no cost while the cost of maintaining the records is high.

The same applies for GIS. Obviously, the labor involved in GIS is costly. The products and infrastructure required to maintain a relevant GIS are also expensive. Without selling GIS data, the investment by government is worth the money just for internal applications. There are numerous applications. In Ottawa County, we have accomplished much and, in some ways, are only scratching the surface. At the same time, much of our data is already free to view for the public through our interactive mapping site.

The cost to the public comes in when they want access to copies of the data, the most valuable of which include the parcels, roads, photos, and elevation data. The parcel data is inputed by a few full time staff, while the photos and elevation data cost multiple thousands of dollars to obtain. Yes, I agree that data wants to be free, but there is a small disconnect for many local governments currently under a fee system when they are asked to go free.

The average resident does not want a copy of the parcel data. It is a specialized file that is pretty much useless to them (though with the new free applications out there it is a lot easier for amateurs to use the data), same with the photos and elevation data. When our department receive requests for large sets of data, it is mostly from private companies, typically ones located outside the state. They typically do not buy it (as this report (10 Ways to Support GIS) points out, no matter how low the price, companies don't bite). For one, they are used to getting data for free in other states. It would be hard to explain to tax-payers and government decision-makers that their money is being used to help develop businesses outside the state.

In addition, I don't think the average tax-payer who uses Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual does not realize how much free public imagery has been used to support those maps. Many of our customers believe that the imagery on these apps is all satellite. In fact, much of it is aerial photography made freely available at some level of government.

Of course, Google and Microsoft are both investing greatly in efforts to obtain their own imagery (see this post here). Both products are great and I am thrilled they are free (as is Ottawa County's GIS web site). However, if you asked Google and Microsoft to give you their photos for free, I don't think they would. Why should they expect that copies of government be free?

In its "10 Ways to Support GIS" report, the Open Data Consortium lays out some alternatives to charging for data. One of them is to use the data to identify under-taxed parcels, another includes a $5 property transfer fee. This increases taxes to the average person, while lessening the burden on non-citizens. Other strategies are more realistic, such as justifying GIS through productivity savings for other governmental departments.

The report points out that GIS data value is from use, not the data. However, right now, in Michigan, we are trying to having both ways. We are selling the data and putting it out there for free to view via the Web. The usage numbers are good and they are growing. As the reports points out, GIS sales are not exactly a cash-cow, but they do provide some revenue. In addition, despite what the report states, the staff cost of distributing data being sold is very minimal. The major labor drag is in printed maps.

The problem with the State of California saying that the data should be free is that the state did not invest funds in the local systems. If local systems want to charge, they should have that right. If the citizens want the data free, push their local board or council, not the legislature. If the local government loses out on economic development, then it is their concern.

The ODC report ends with this anecdote:

One ODC participant, a stalwart advocate of selling his county's data to users who were not taxpayers or citizens of his county, asked during our deliberations, "why should a national map company have free access to our data when they sell digital tourist maps for profit?" "And when those tourists use our maps to guide their vacation," the data reseller answered,"where do they go to spend their money?"
There is truth to this story, but couldn't we find a happy medium? Wouldn't it be nice to have the tourists spend money in the County and also have private companies supplement the taxpayers investment in GIS?

I'm am torn on this issue. It is similar to the intellectual property problems with books, music, and movies. However, the trouble for governments is that they are not able to turn to advertisers to pay for free services. You could argue that the return would be in economic development dollars, tourism dollars, or savings to residents who utilize engineering companies to improve their property. I would prefer to have a free model, but Michigan has allowed local government to decide. Our County has decided to charge for copies, but have free web data. I don't think you can fault us for that.

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