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Threat to Right-To-Know

California Assemblyman Solorio Reduces Public Access to Government Maps and GIS Data

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Source: DirectionsMag.

Assemblymember Jose Solorio's Bill Threatens Public Access to Government Geodata
By Bruce Joffe , GIS Consultants
March 04, 2008

On February 14, 2008, California State Assemblymember Jose Solorio introduced a bill, AB1978, to amend Government Code Section 6254.9 of the California Public Records Act (CPRA). As stated in the "Computer Mapping Systems Fact Sheet" issued by his office, the bill seeks to improve the current definition of what constitutes a “computer mapping system.” In fact, the bill distorts the definition of "computer mapping system" further from reality. Moreover, if enacted, this bill would severely weaken the CPRA and reduce the public's access to its governments' records.

The CPRA ensures the public's ability to hold our governmental agencies accountable by guaranteeing access to public records at no more than the direct cost of reproduction. "Public records" include government data and records stored in electronic format. Public records also include computerized maps and associated data, such as those stored in GISs. All government records and data are subject to the CPRA except those types specifically exempted in the CPRA (to protect individual privacy and public safety). Computer software developed by a state or local agency is exempted. "Software" means the programs that instruct computers to manipulate data. Data, the information manipulated by computer software, is not software and is not exempt from the CPRA.

Assemblymember Solorio proposed a new paragraph to add to the CPRA which would exempt "assembled model data, metadata, and listings of metadata" from public records access by the public. I am not sure what meaning he intended by these terms, but my 30 years of experience working as a geographic information consultant to many cities, counties, and state agencies offers the following definitions:

* "Metadata" is information about the data records. Importantly, it is a description of the meanings of the terms used to denote data attributes. Metadata also refers to a description of the data's accuracy, sources, persons responsible, and dates of collection or compilation. This information is essential to the public's understanding of the quality and intention of the data. Metadata is information about data; it is not software. Metadata is like a dictionary of the contents of a computer mapping or GIS database. Would he want the public to access and use public records and map-related information without fully understanding their meaning, accuracy or relevancy?

* "Listings of metadata" is an ambiguous term, not commonly used in the geospatial profession. It could mean a catalog of the metadata entries, such as is maintained by the California Spatial Information Library, which is used to direct the public to agencies that have map-related data for a location they are interested in; it's like a card catalog in the public library. Has he offered a bill that exempts such directories to information from public record?

Perhaps he intended "listings of metadata" to mean a catalog of the data types contained in a public agency's database. Such listings are essential to the public's knowing what data an agency has, so the public knows what public record data to request. His bill could preclude the public from knowing what information is being used by our government agencies. It would eviscerate the Public Records Act by enabling agencies to withhold records simply by not revealing their existence.

* "Assembled model data" is a confusing term, not used in the geospatial profession. Did he intend, perhaps, to say "geospatial data model," meaning the internal structure (modeling) of the data? The geospatial data model describes the data tables (structure and types of data contained), and the relationships of data tables (cross-linking keys and attributes), in a relational database. The data model structures the database while the database holds the actual data (the public records). The data model is not software. Software is program code that tells the computer to get certain data and perform certain operations upon it. The software "knows" where the requested data is located by referring to the "blueprint" of the database structure, the data model.

Although a data model may be uniquely designed by an agency that uses GIS, so as to best contain the data for which it is responsible, the structure of the geospatial database is not software and should not be exempted by the CPRA. If, however, his bill intends to exempt a public agency's data model because it is the product of a design effort, and therefore might be considered proprietary by the public agency, his bill should explicitly require public agencies to provide their data in a standard, public domain data model when requested under the CPRA. All commercially available GIS software used by California's counties and other public agencies contains the functionality to export the data in their databases from their internal data model structure to such standard formats as "shape files," "themes," and "flat files."

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Assemblymember Solorio's "Computer Mapping Systems Fact Sheet" states that "the assembled model data, metadata, and listing of metadata can not be separated from computer code (or GIS/LIS software) without rendering the computer mapping system inoperable." This statement is flat-out wrong. It is untrue. It has no basis in fact. GIS software that enables the storage of metadata about data records in the database also provides simple methods for viewing and exporting the metadata. Computer code need not be revealed, nor need it be separated. Computer code is already separate from the data it manipulates or displays. GIS software is designed to provide the user with data, with descriptions of that data (metadata), and with descriptions of the structure of the data (data models) without, as his "fact sheet" asserts, "rendering the computer mapping system inoperable."

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.

The explicit intention of his proposed bill, AB 1978, as stated in his "Computer Mapping Systems Fact Sheet" is to "allow commercial interests, who are most benefited by these systems, to obtain the portion of computer mapping systems, developed by an agency, at a fee designed to offset the agency’s cost of maintenance for the computer mapping system." His bill seeks to allow public agencies to charge members of the public who may have commercial interests more for public record data than the cost of reproduction, by obscuring and confusing the distinction between "data" and "computer mapping systems" and "software."

The Public Records Act prohibits discriminating against any member of the public that requests public record data; it even prohibits the public agency from asking the requester the purpose to which the data would be used (commercial or non-commercial). It prohibits charging more than the cost of reproduction for the requested data; and explicitly prohibits an agency from recouping its cost of creating or maintaining such data. Public records are data created or collected by the government in the conduct of its mandated duties; as such, creating and maintaining such data must be borne by the government's operations, not by the public's right to have access to public records. This interpretation of the CPRA was affirmed by the Attorney General in 2005 (Opinion 04-1105), and confirmed by the California Superior Court's decision in the CFAC v. Santa Clara County case (No. 1-06-CV-072630 (pdf)) in 2007.

For these reasons, I have respectfully requested Assemblymember Solorio to withdraw AB 1978. It's a bad bill, poorly written and destructive in its potential implementation.

If he is sincere in sponsoring a bill that would clearly redress the ambiguity and mis-information regarding "software" and "computer mapping systems" as currently stated in the CPRA, and in doing so in a manner that respects the public's right to view and obtain copies of public record data, I would be happy to make my time, and that of my GIS professional colleagues, available to him.

Please join me in opposing this proposed legislation before it reaches legislative committee review (March 15) by sending a letter to Assembly Member Solorio, to your local Assembly Member and your local state Senator (if you live in California), to the press, and to any professional associations or public interest groups that share our concern.

For your background information, you will find here the document which contains (a) the proposed changes to California's PRA; (b) the explanatory statement issued from Assembly Member Solorio's office; and (c) and a short list of people to whom you should send copies of your letter. Please also send a copy to Tom Newton (California Newspaper Publishers Association), Peter Scheer (California First Amendment Coalition), and myself (Open Data Consortium), so we may coordinate the opposition to this bill.

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