Citizens in Britain Take Back Their Data

I while ago I ran in to this story about a group suing Santa Clara County, CA for charging huge fees to access its GIS data. The fees could grow in to six figures for the entire county.

For Santa Clara’s part, they claim their data is “copyrighted and proprietary”, which seems to fly in the face of California’s Public Records Act. Sigh. I say sue their pants off.

Then I ran in to this interesting article in National Geographic.

In Great Britain, the government in fact does hold copyrights over its mapping data. It generally only licenses it to companies for big bucks (not unlike Santa Clara) and doesn’t give it out to private citizens.

Naturally, this kind of thing tends to irritate the citizenry, and OpenStreetMap was born. From their web site:

OpenStreetMap is a project aimed squarely at creating and providing free geographic data such as street maps to anyone who wants them. The project was started because most maps you think of as free actually have legal or technical restrictions on their use, holding back people from using them in creative, productive or unexpected ways.
OpenStreetMap takes GPS data from hundreds of users to construct street networks, mostly around Great Britain. To create their open-source maps, OpenStreetMap volunteers travel through a region on foot, by bike, or by car with a handheld GPS transponder that logs their route. When a traveler returns home, he or she downloads the GPS data to a computer and uploads the raw file to OpenStreetMap’s Web site. Contributors can also add detailed information, such as street names and the kinds of streets or roads being mapped.

The data isn’t nearly as complete as “official” government data, but it’s getting better all of the time. It’s an interesting project to say the least.

I don’t want to go off on a rant here, but this sort of thing really bugs me. In most of the US, the government doesn’t “own” its data. The government is generally termed in public records law the “data custodian”. You are the friendly high school janitor of your data. You don’t own it, the public does. Give it out for free or for minimal cost-recovery charges (cost of the request, NOT the data) or the public will eventually go around you or drag you to court. Which is as it should be. There, I’m done ranting.