Author Archives: Will Craig
Is it OK to let people dig up old dirt? At issue is the balance between privacy and freedom of information. In the US, we say “sure” even when the dirt is no longer relevant. It’s different in Europe. Thanks to a recent lawsuit, Google allows people to opt out when the information is “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant.”
The October 4 issue of The Economist describes the situation in an article, The Right to be forgotten: Drawing the line. In 1998 Mario Costeja González, a lawyer, was forced to sell his home to pay some debts. Notice was posted in a Spanish newspaper, La Vanguardia. Google linked to it, causing González no end of professional problems. He sued to be forgotten and won.
America (and Google) has a history of openness and freedom of speech. Everything is fair game. Europe has a different history, that includes fascism and communism. Public information has been used to hurt innocent people. Europe is more willing to suppress information that doesn’t serve a public good.
The balance is not always easy, but Google has risen to the challenge and is allowing people to petition to have links removed. Each appeal is reviewed and most are refused, but many have been granted. Requests by doctors to remove patient reviews have been denied. A teenage drunk-driving accident report was removed because it happened years ago, but an old report about professional misconduct was retained.
The process is evolving. Google has established a high level advisory council to help develop the process. Their report is due early next year. At the same time, government privacy regulators are working on shared guidelines for appeals.
The GIS community should watch closely. Our GISCI Code of Ethics commits us to serving society on the one hand and respecting individuals on the other. Society needs information, but individual privacy needs to be respected too. People should have enough autonomy to opt out, but not always. Where is the balance? The Google case will help us understand the balance and make more informed decisions.
There are other reasons to watch closely. Rules adopted in Europe may prove useful in other parts of the world, including the US.
The Transportation Research Board (TRB) recently published a report: Integrating Airport Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Data with Public Agency GIS. It is based on a literature review and surveys of 44 organizations, mostly airports themselves. The report was commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to benefit airports, but results will be equally interesting to readers from public agencies.
Airports need air photos, parcel, land use, zoning, centerline, construction areas, utility, flood zone, and wetland data from public agencies. They can be strong partners in collecting new air photos and contour information. Interestingly, some of the smaller airports rely on local agencies as their GIS resource: software, hardware, and even staff in some cases.
Public agencies could use airport data for their own work. Noise contours, construction areas, internal building addresses, and outside building height limitations are some of the most useful items. Airports also supply useful information on the basic airfield layout, ground transportation data, utilities, and impervious surfaces and other themes with environmental impacts, .
There are clearly benefits from interaction, but organizational and technical challenges limit progress. Organizational challenges include cost, cumbersome agreements, excessive protection of sensitive data, lack of awareness, and limited awareness of high-level administrative officers about the value of collaboration. Technical challenges include lack of metadata and lack of consistently applied standards.
Nine successful case studies show how those obstacles have been overcome. The Minneapolis-St. Paul example benefited from the broader spirit of cooperation facilitated by MetroGIS, which has involved counties, cities, and the airport from the beginning. Each of the other examples focuses on a particular activity or approach that led to their success.
NSGIC has begun documenting the hundreds of state, local and federal government business needs for addresses. By drawing attention to the importance of address data, we hope to justify efforts to coordinate address collection, management, and uses across all levels of government. While NSGIC still considers it to be a work-in-progress, this information is being tracked in a publicly available Google doc – Address Business Needs.
Sometimes, the use of an address is as simple as placing a letter or package into the mail system. Other times, a correct address location can save a life. The problem is that government doesn’t do a very good job of tracking addresses. Typically, a local “address authority” assigns an address and then notifies a few other (usually local) agencies about the new address. But no agency is assigned (or assumes) a custodial role of maintaining an authoritative database of addresses (and importantly, their physical location in space) that can be used by others in that local government or at other levels of government.
NSGIC’s initial list of government business needs for addresses includes well over 100 use cases. Our list of state uses is the most complete, with nearly two dozen generic agencies using addresses in at least 67 different ways. Since address assignments typically originate with local governments, each state government needs to coordinate with hundreds of local cities and counties to collect authoritative address data. The US Post Office and US Census Bureau also create and maintain data collection partnerships with local government, but are forbidden by law from sharing their compiled address datasets with other agencies or levels of government.
There are three separate tabs on the Google document to delineate governmental business needs – one tab each for local, state, and federal government. An initial tab provides an overview of the purpose, process, and contents of the document. For each business need listed, we list:
A. The agency/department that uses the address data;
B. The business function name/label within the governmental division;
C. The spatial function that the address data is created/collected to serve (e.g. delivery, district determination, service allocation, etc.); and,
D. A brief description of the business function that the address data supports
The initial response to these lists has been quite positive. Even states that have begun to coordinate addresses have found new agency use cases from other states that help to expand their user base at home.
Comments are welcome and can be added to the Google doc. Individuals or agencies wishing to add to these lists of business needs are invited to contact their State NCGIC Representative or leadership of the NSGIC Address Committee.
In a December Blog I wrote about the MetroGIS Call for Free & Open Access to Government Data. On GIS Day 2013, MetroGIS sent letters to the Administrators and Board chairs in each of the 7 counties in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area asking the move in that direction.
As of Tuesday, April 1, 4 of the 7 counties had passed resolutions endorsing that policy: Ramsey (St. Paul), Hennepin (Minneapolis), Dakota, and Carver counties. These four represent 75% of the nearly 3 million people in the area.
Most of these resolutions were passed as consent items! County Boards were convinced by a wonderful research document showing the benefits of sharing and the low returns on sales. For that document, related material, and the 4 county resolutions, see MetroGIS Free & Open Data Resource Page.
MetroGIS, an award-winning collaboration, began working in 1995 as an initiative to share data across the 7-county Minneapolis-St. Paul region. From the beginning, they have struggled with fees and licenses. This year may signal the end of those problems. A formal report on Free and Open Access to Data presents enough good research to justify lowering those barriers. The report was adopted by the MetroGIS Policy Board in October. Letters encouraging the elimination of charging and licenses were sent to all county Administrators and Board Chairs on November 20 (GIS Day).
It is remarkable that the MetroGIS Policy Board is dominated by county government. The report convinced those leaders by showing them: the low revenue gained through sales, the value of work done by non-profits who were able to access the data, and the reduction in liability of free and open systems.
The NSGIC audience will appreciate examples of sharing and case law that go beyond Minnesota and cover the nation.
Newspapers and legislative hearing rooms are full of concerns over individual privacy. While some of those concerns are well founded, there is a danger all data will be sequestered, that it will be locked behind firewalls. If that happens, all transparency will be lost. People will not be able to understand what is happening in their community. They will not be able to make intelligent decisions or know how their government is functioning.
Thomas Jefferson said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” NSGIC believes this and is especially concerned with attacks on locational information because Geographic is our middle name. We have recently published a document, This Isn’t Private Information. It presents five examples of locational data that is clearly not private.
- Street addresses, even with x-y coordinates, if no resident names are associated
- Property ownership and assessment records are purposely public records
- Aerial photography resolution is typically too course to identify individuals
- Published Census data is only summary information
- Google’s Street View™ and similar images
(September 17, 2013 Update) MAPPS is also concerned about federal overreaction on privacy issues. They have developed a resolution and other convincing material that document the value of imagery and geospatial information for the economy, public safety, open government, etc. See Federal Issue: Privacy.
Editor’s Note: The following ‘report’ was made at Rick Gelbmann’s retirement party. Rick was manager of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council’s GIS Team where he made huge contributions to regional data sharing activities, including the creation of the award-winning MetroGIS initiative in 1995. He had to do something like this; two-thirds of the data he needs to do his job comes from others in the region. Rick’s retirement party was on April 5, 2013, close enough to label this spoof the thoughts of an April Fool. The report was conceived and delivered by Randy Knippel, chair of the MetroGIS County Data Producer Workgroup and Nobody’s Fool. (My apologies for badly formatting Randy’s report, but the blogosphere has its limitations)
MetroGIS Liaison Report
We have worked with Rick for many years through MetroGIS, but he has always held reservations about how things have changed over the years. With his retirement, he intends to make himself available through consulting services. We have had preliminary planning meetings with him and, with Rick’s guidance; we expect to start making some much needed changes.
Effective immediately, we will begin a new phase in GIS data development and deployment by eliminating all collaboration and data sharing, instead, working individually to create much stronger GIS programs.
- To get things back on track we will encourage adoption of following basic principles:
- All agencies will independently examine data fees and begin charging more to pay for their GIS operations.
- Eliminate sharing of data so we don’t have to worry about people misusing it or blaming us for mistakes.
- This will also prevent terrorists from using it against us and avoid privacy issues.
- All work groups will dissolve and all communication and collaboration will cease.
- From the counties’ perspective, pricing for parcels is expected to rise to former levels and beyond, likely exceeding $100 per parcel. However, other government agencies and educational institutions will not be allowed to buy it and will begin building their own parcel databases.
- Current data licensing will be amended to include universal background checks and restrictions on the use of high-capacity data storage devices.
- This will prevent criminals from getting the data and using it for nefarious purposes.
- Calm fears of law-abiding citizens who believe less than 10 records at a time is enough.
- We expect to realize a host of benefits including:
- Revenue from GIS data is expected to increase into the ka-jillions (That’s a big number. For those of you having trouble visualizing it, that’s a 1 with a ka-jillion zeros after it.)
- Property taxes will decrease substantially as entire government operating budgets are funded by GIS data revenue.
- GIS programs will grow. (It will be a great time to be working in the field of GIS. We will double and triple existing staffing levels to build killer apps as unique as possible so we all have our own brand and individual web presence. As demand for GIS staff increases, GIS salaries will increase dramatically, creating hiring wars as we compete with each other for qualified staff.)
- The economy in general will be stimulated (Without collaboration and data sharing we will spend much more on data collection and maintenance creating a boon for consultants and contractors.)
- We look forward to Rick’s vision and leadership in this brave new approach to doing GIS! We were going against established wisdom in 1995, but times have changed. It’s time to reverse direction and go against the flow again.
Better cities can be created by giving citizens creative access to information. A new project is being launched in Europe to create Smart City applications and transfer them from city to city. The project will be using an open source service developer toolkit to help make it easier for developers to create new and innovative applications that work across the continent. The project is called CitySDK, City System Development Kit. The €6.84 million project is funded in part by a grant from the European Commission.
The basic idea is to open city data resources to developers allowing them to create useful applications, much like Washington DC did when it conducted its Apps for Democracy competition. Unlike Washington DC, CitySDK wants the same app to run in many cities across Europe. Pilot projects will be launched in three cities starting in early 2013: Amsterdam, Helsinki, and Lisbon. Five other cities are also participating: Barcelona, Istanbul, Lamia (Greece), Manchester, and Rome. This effort will require cities releasing their data in standard formats.
Europeans see this approach benefitting citizens who use the applications, cities who get apps written for them, and developers who benefit from expanded markets. The expectation is that the more nimble smaller firms will take advantage of this opportunity, what Europeans call SMEs – small and medium enterprises. In their documentation, they say CitySDK will provide developers with a “European advantage against the US and Asian competitors.”
Note: CitySDK was identified in a special report on Technology and Geography in the October 27 issue of The Economist. The over-riding theme of the report is that geography is enhanced by smart phones and connectivity, not diminished. Smart cities take advantage of technology by helping people navigate, find interesting places, and even report problems that can be fixed quickly.
Last May I wrote about the European March Toward Open Data. A Finnish study had found 15% better economic performance in countries with open data policies compared to those trying to recover their costs. Based on that finding, Finland had begun making their geodata available free of charge to all users.
I neglected an important issue. The growth came from small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Lower costs allow SMEs to develop new GI-based products and services. Large firms, able to pay full fees, didn’t do anything different when data became cheaper. See Does Marginal Cost Pricing of Public Sector Information Spur Firm Growth?
Two new studies have come out of Europe that support open access to government data.
- A 2011 Finnish study addressed the question, Does Marginal Cost Pricing of Public Sector Information Spur Firm Growth? The authors analyze data from 15 counties and conclude “Firms functioning in the countries in which public sector agencies provide fundamental geographical information either freely or at maximum marginal costs have grown, on average, about 15 percent more per annum than the firms in the countries in which public sector GI is priced according to the cost-recovery principle.” Starting in May 2012, all Finnish geodata is being made available free of charge to all users.
- An April 2012 Danish study looked at the Funding of a System of Key Registers in a PSI-conomics and Contemporary Perspective. Three options were considered: people pay to register data (e.g. deeds), people pay to purchase data, and government pays. The study concludes that it is best for general state government support. Selling government data is inefficient because it keeps out many potential users and those who do pay distort the market. Society is better off when data is available to widest number of users.