homeland security and spatial data–the local version

Santa Clara County, California has just decided to limit its sale of geographically related information, that is the data needed to make computerized maps. The stated reason is homeland security because “they didn’t want some of the data to end up in the hands of terrorists”. However, the county also just happens to be in the final phase of a lawsuit alleging that the county overcharges for its data. According to the report, the county currently charges $150,000 but a consultant hired BY the county asserts that the whole data set could cost as little as $22,000.

This is just the latest salvo in the fight by cities and counties to protect digital spatial data, whic represents a lucrative source of funding for the government (but also, to be fair, finances the county’s own geographic information system and staff, which historically has never been adequately budgeted for in more prosaic government operations). One should note that the collection of this data is financed by public dollars AND most of it is available for free in paper format. Should one believe I am making up ulterior motives, one of the plaintiffs in the case responds,

This is a completely made-up argument thrown in at the last minute,” he said, noting that the county had already sold the information and that employees without any kind of special training are allowed to work with it.

In the killer app world of Google Earth and Google Maps, this type of data now forms a critical part of standard government operating procedure. For example, private sector planners use it to assess the impacts of transportation proposals. Realtors use the data to sell homes. Corporations use it to select sites for new development. Availability of local spatial data possesses enormous importance as a window onto government activties, whether it’s police presense, environmental impacts, or affordable housing construction. That’s why the San Jose Mercury News is one of the plaintiffs and why nonprofit and environmental organizations should follow this case closely.

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