Is geographic information system (GIS) data available under the Freedom of Information Act?  The California Supreme Court says “yes”.

Pursuant to the California Public Records Act, the Sierra Club sought access to information contained in the Orange County’s “OC Landbase,” a large database holding information about land parcels in the county, in a GIS file format.  The County rejected the request, taking the position that such information was not a public record under the Act.  Specifically, the Act excludes from the definition of a public record computer software, including mapping systems. 

The California Supreme Court found that while the GIS mapping software fell within the statutory exclusion for computer software, a GIS-formatted database, like the OC Landbase, did not.  Thus, such databases, unless otherwise exempt, are public records that must be produced if requested, at the actual cost of duplication. Sierra Club v. Superior Court (County of Orange) (Supreme Ct.; 07/08/2013) 57 Cal.4th 157.

The significance of this case is that third parties may be able to obtain substantial proprietary data from the government through the California Public Records Act or other similar government records requests. As more businesses want access to data for business analytics and big data needs, like completing extensive environmental permit applications and filling out complex environmental and transaction reports, obtaining that data from the government on the cheap will be important, and this case seems to allow that practice.