From Public Records to Open Government: Access to Massachusetts Municipal Geographic Data

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The Internet is making sharing, combining, and analyzing geographic data easier and more commonplace. The development of standard formats and application programming interfaces (APIs) mean data from multiple sources can be combined and presented in new ways by applications, Web sites, and map mashups (Ferreira 2008). Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has argued that improved means of organizing and sharing data will usher in the next phase of the Internet (Bizer, Heath, and Berners-Lee 2009). U.S. government agencies are involved in the creation and management of large amounts of data. Public access to this information is required to hold public officials accountable and provide value to a range of data users, and may result in benefits to governments through data quality improvement. The growth of the Internet has made possible new forms of data sharing and exchange, and increasingly government agencies also are making data available in "raw" formats for processing, analysis, and reuse. This trend has been encouraged by scholars who argue it is the most efficient means of realizing the public value of government data (Robinson et al. 2009). A significant portion of government data are geographic, much of it created and managed using geographic information systems (GIS).

Local governments not only create unique datasets but also determine how they are used through technical, legal, and policy choices. These unique datasets created at the local level include data describing the assessed value and characteristics of taxable real estate, parcel boundaries, zoning district boundaries, local infrastructure, and natural features. This information is useful for local environmental regulation and urban planning, and often is not available from any other sources.

The purpose of this study is to investigate access to GIS data at the local level through a public records request to all Massachusetts municipalities. It seeks to answer the questions: What costs do citizens incur obtaining the data and what licensing restrictions are placed on it that restrict the public uses described previously? In addition, what types of data are exempted from public release under the law's public-safety exemption? The paper closes with a discussion of how existing laws and practices could be changed to achieve policy goals: government transparency, fostering civic innovation, respecting privacy, and safeguarding public safety.

There are several arguments for making local GIS data available to citizens: legal mandates, government transparency, and public benefits. In addition, releasing information often can serve government priorities such as ensuring data quality or advancing policy goals.

First, the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the state of Massachusetts Public Records Law (PRL) requires that all government records should be available for citizen inspection, except for clearly defined exceptions. Because records must be public, information technology can reduce the cost and inconvenience of satisfying requests for both government and citizens alike. These laws followed from utilitarian philosophers, who argued that representative government required "the widest participation in the details of judicial and administrative business; as by jury-trial, admission to municipal offices, and, above all, by the utmost possible publicity and liberty of discussion ..." (Mill 2008 [1861]: 73). Under this reasoning, government agencies should be subject to different rules than are private corporations.

Second, access to technical data in particular often is necessary to hold government accountable for regulatory decisions. "We have to be able to see the data the same way the public agency sees the data when they make the decision," said GIS consultant Bruce Joffee in an interview, "whether it's a zoning variance or tax decision or anything else." Joffee described a scenario in which a for-profit consultant might use public data to examine government decisions about property appraisal or zoning decisions (Joffe 2010b). …