spatial data access and the haves

When I originally heard about this court case, I thought it only concerned the aerials of people’s houses. (Greenwich, CT is one of the richest towns in the US so it’s no surprise that its citizens are a mite upset). Apparently it’s about the spatial digital data as well. And I thought that the citizens of Greenwich were trying to prevent access to the photos. But apparently, it’s citizens trying to gain access to the digital data, maps and aerials. Anyway, here are the results of the court case.

City must release electronic GIS mapping data

Also available at GISCafe.

Publicly releasing electronically formatted government maps has not been shown to pose a public safety risk or violate a trade secret, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

June 16, 2005

Electronically formatted maps, which allow journalists to plot geographically referenced statistical data in studying the adequacy of government programs and performance, must be released in electronic form to open records requesters in Connecticut, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday.

The maps, created from Geographic Information System data and showing city landmarks, including the location of “security-sensitive” sites such as schools, public utilities, and bridges, must be open because officials in Greenwich, Conn., did not show that their release will violate a trade secret or threaten public safety, the high court ruled.

Greenwich citizen Stephen Whitaker requested electronic access to the city’s GIS maps in December 2001 under the state open records law.

The town refused to give Whitaker electronic access to its GIS system, arguing that the records qualified for public safety and trade secret exemptions to the state’s public records law. Whitaker sued and obtained rulings in favor of release from the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission in 2002 and the Connecticut Superior Court in 2004. Greenwich appealed to the Connecticut Appellate Court, but the Supreme Court stepped in and transferred the case onto its own docket before the intermediate appellate court could rule.

Justice Christine S. Vertefeuille, writing for the court, rejected the argument that the trade secret exemption could apply to the electronic GIS maps. All of the information contained in the maps is available piecemeal from other town departments, so there is nothing secret about them, she wrote. [emphasis added]

Vertefeuille found the town’s asserted public safety exemption equally unconvincing. Although witnesses — among them the Greenwich police chief — had testified that public safety would be jeopardized if the GIS data were released, little concrete evidence of that was presented. “Generalized claims of a possible safety risk” are not enough to satisfy the government’s burden of proof on an exemption claim, Vertefeuille wrote.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in November urging the high court to order the GIS data’s release. In addition to its legal arguments, the brief highlighted the issue’s relevance to the news media by compiling stories that would not have been written without electronic mapping.

Greenwich has 10 days to ask all seven supreme court justices to reconsider the decision, which was decided by a five-member panel.

(Director, Dep’t of Information Technology of the Town of Greenwich v. Freedom of Information Communication; Access Counsel: Clifton A. Leonhardt, Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission; Hartford, Conn.)

I added the emphasis above because that is the primary argument used to gain access to spatial data. It doesn’t seem to stop the counter argument of local governments that the digitization of data changes the very nature of the data and fails to compensate for the effort needed to create digital data. These–the value added character and the sweat of the brow–are the essence of arguments made for Canadian copyright of spatial data.

Here’s another article on the same court case. Notice this, more local, story is less enthusiastic. Also notice that the profit motive and the freedom of information motive are drowned out by the protection from terrorism motive. The security concerns mentioned by residents are exclusively connected to the privacy concerns of the wealthy. (Think we’ll see a similar lawsuit around the security concerns of the have-nots? I think not.)

Court Rules Public Has Right to GIS Information in Greenwich

June 16, 2005

In a case watched closely by Westport and other towns upgrading technology, the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that the public has a right to see aerial photos and other records of Greenwich despite concerns about privacy, crime and terrorism.

The high court ruled unanimously Wednesday that Greenwich must release its computer database of aerial photographs and maps known as a geographic information system. The court said the town failed to show the records are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act because of security concerns.

“Such generalized claims of a possible safety risk do not satisfy the plaintiff’s burden of proving the applicability of an exemption from disclosure under the act,” the high court said.

Attorneys involved in the case said the ruling sets a precedent.

“This is the first appellate level decision on the issue of security and access to government geographic information systems in the country that we’re aware of,” said Mitchell Pearlman, executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

Greenwich officials have said that the uncontrolled release of detailed information on infrastructure, public safety facilities, schools and celebrities’ homes in electronic form could lead to breaches in security and privacy. The town has been reluctant to disclose the records to the public since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Westport’s Representative Town Meeting earlier this month approved spending $420,000 on a Web-based Geographic Information System. During the debate on the appropriation at the RTM and Board of Finance, several residents expressed security concerns related to making the information easily available to the public.

One Response to “spatial data access and the haves”

  1. Great blog. I love all of the the informatiuon on law and computers. Very helpful to me as I chronicle a true story in my blog.