January 21, 2011 | By Mark Rumold

EFF Urges California Court to Grant Public Access to Electronic Mapping Data

Last week, EFF joined a coalition of public interest and media groups in filing an amicus brief (pdf) urging a California Court of Appeal to uphold the public’s right to access electronic files created and stored by local governments. The case, Sierra Club v. Superior Court, focuses on the public’s right to access geographic information system (GIS) basemaps created by local governments in California.

GIS basemaps integrate basic property information such as parcel boundaries, addresses, and other property data. Additional information can then be "layered" on top of the basemaps, enabling users to understand, interpret, and visualize data in ways that simply aren't possible through the rows and columns of a spreadsheet. Individuals and organizations then use these maps for a variety of innovative purposes — for example, scientists use them, journalists and the media use them, and public interest organizations use them(pdf).

The Sierra Club filed a request under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) for Orange County’s property information — information the County used and maintained in a GIS format. The Sierra Club requested the GIS basemap as part of its mission to protect open spaces in California: using the basemaps, the Sierra Club makes detailed maps of proposed real estate developments and suggests possible alternatives to those developments. The County, however, refused to turn over the information in the requested GIS format, despite its obligation under California law to provide public records in “any electronic format in which it holds the information.” Instead, the County offered to provide the property information in a pdf, even though the County already had the information available in GIS format.

Orange County claimed that information stored in GIS format is exempt from disclosure under the "software exception" of the CPRA. While the CPRA does exempt government entities from disclosing "computer software developed by a state or local agency," public information processed or formatted for that software is not exempt. Coupled with the County’s obligation to provide public records in the format requested, it seems clear that Orange County is illegally withholding its GIS basemap from the Sierra Club.

Unfortunately, the trial court sided with Orange County and inexplicably held that the GIS basemap constituted software that was exempt from disclosure. The Sierra Club appealed the decision, and the appellate court ordered full briefing. Our amicus brief argued that simply because information is stored in a specific electronic file format, that format does not change the public nature of the information itself.

The amicus brief was spearheaded by the First Amendment Coalition (FAC), an organization that litigated, and won, a similar case in 2009. Along with FAC, EFF joined the brief with the Associated Press, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Citizen Media Law Project, and Wired, among numerous other public interest and media organizations dedicated to open government and freedom of information.


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