GIS is a Powerful Transparency Tool (Part 1 of 30)
Your local government’s GIS data-sharing policy is your local economic development policy, whether you know it or not.– Chris Dunn
Author’s Note: In 2014, as a law student at the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Law, I wrote an analysis of Missouri Revised Statute § 67.1850. That’s the Missouri statute that grants local governments several unusual powers and great control over the public’s right to access government-held GIS data. My view is that the statute’s enumerated powers run counter to good economic development practices, common sense, and the principles supporting the public’s right to government transparency as codified in the Missouri Sunshine Act. This article is the first of a series of 30 sequential posts, all of which will build a case for repealing or reforming § 67.1850. I’m not just repackaging an old paper for the web. I’m going to update, enhance, and provide links that demonstrate how Missouri’s local governments are misusing the statute, and ultimately harming themselves. – Chris Dunn
Behold The Terrible Power of Governmental Transparency Provided by GIS!
The power of geographic information systems (GIS) is unleashed by their ability to query copies of government-held records and gain penetrating insights into otherwise unknowable or undiscoverable government functions. This power is the primary reason journalism and watchdog groups have rapidly begun adopting GIS in their investigations. Unlike the governmental information of a bygone era, many public records, once hidden in file cabinets, are now not only cheaply stored electronically but also associated with geographic features. These “new” geographically-enhanced public records offer the potential to achieve great insights into how our local governments operate—but only if they are made available to us. In the eyes of some legislators, it seems these GIS-enhanced records are far too powerful for public access.
Increasing Government Transparency by an Order of Magnitude
A story from the period when the media began to discover the power of GIS is illustrative. In southern Florida in 1992, the media used GIS technology and a public records request to uncover corruption in a local-government building inspection department. Its shady practices ultimately resulted in millions of dollars of unnecessary storm damage.
Soon after…[H]urricane [Andrew] struck, reporters at the Miami Herald newspaper started covering the massive recovery effort. Around the same time, owners whose homes had been battered and flattened began questioning how the damage could be so severe. After all, the conventional wisdom at the time held that South Florida had the toughest building codes of the country.
Geospatial Patterns of Corruption Emerge
Subsequently, the Miami Herald reporters used GIS to analyze the hurricane’s path and levels of home destruction. By comparing the hurricane’s wind speed with the levels of destruction, the Herald found some curious discrepancies. Some residential areas had more damage than predicted while others had the expected level of damage from a storm with the high wind speeds seen in Hurricane Andrew. With GIS maps in hand, as prepared by the Herald staff, the team of reporters was able to uncover corrupt municipal and county building-inspection programs that purposely overlooked shoddy residential construction—resulting in elevated levels of hurricane damage. “The Herald‘s investigation of the slipshod construction and inadequate inspections helped the newspaper win journalism’s highest honor—the Pulitzer Prize—and sparked interest in using GIS to analyze data for news stories.” From that story, other journalists saw that GIS could be a powerful reporting tool.
Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850
With the enactment of Missouri Revised Statute § 67.1850 (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850), the legislature placed a significant barrier between Missouri citizens and the public records that they ostensibly have a right to obtain. It was the first obstacle of its kind since the passage of the state’s Sunshine Laws. I’ll delve into this more in the next few weeks, but for now, here’s a preview of the six-part, 30-post series to come:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 1 of this series begins above and will be continued in the following posts:
- An Example of Local Government Using GIS (2 of 30)
- Geographic Expressions (3 of 30)
- All Topology Forms May Have Attributes (4 of 30)
- Layers: The Union of Attribute and Geographic Data (5 of 30)
- The Systems Aspect of GIS (6 of 30)
Part 2: Geographic Information Systems
Part 2 of this series briefly describes how a GIS works and how a lack of access to the native GIS files is significant. This section is for those elected officials who may not be familiar with GIS technology. It lays the technical foundation for the analysis that follows and describes how this technology does not alter the public nature of the records it controls. Part 2 will be presented in the following posts:
- Missouri’s Sunshine Law (7 of 30)
- What is a public record? (8 of 30)
- What is a copy of a public record? (9 of 30)
- What will obtaining the copy cost the requester? (10 of 30)
- Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850 Modifies the Broader Sunshine Law (11 of 30)
Part 3: Legal Analysis
Part 3 provides a legal analysis of how and why Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850 departs from the time-honored principles codified by Missouri’s Sunshine Law, positing that these departures, if widely understood by citizens and the media, would be considered antidemocratic. Part 3 will be presented in the following posts:
- Practical Implications of Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850 (12 of 30)
- Requiring a Data License (13 of 30)
- Adding Extraneous Provisions to the Data License Agreement (14 of 30)
- The False Equivalences of Record Format Substitutions (15 of 30)
- Driving Up Costs with Record Format Substitutions (16 of 30)
- Employing a Cost Recovery Rationale (17 of 30)
- Erroneous Applicability (18 of 30)
- A Brief Statutory Analysis (19 of 30)
Part 4: Public Policy Analysis
Part 4 illustrates that, by the passage of Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850, local elected officials recognized that they had a potential new revenue stream, a monopoly on an increasingly important set of public records, and a new tool they might use to decrease transparency at the local government level, if they were already so inclined. Logically, many local governments have used the statute accordingly. Part 4 will be presented in the following posts:
- The Broader Implications (20 of 30)
- Economic Impact (21 of 30)
- Why We Need to Change This Law (22 of 30)
- Possible Solutions (23 of 30)
Part 5: Conclusions and Options
Part 5 proposes a broad spectrum of possible solutions to the problems inherent in allowing Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850 to stand. Part 5 will be presented in the following posts:
- Strike the Statute (24 of 30)
- Reform the Statue (25 of 30)
- A Constitutional Amendment like California’s (26 of 30)
- Interpret the Statute Correctly (27 of 30)
Part 6: A Legal Attack on § 67-1850
Part 6 provides an example legal attack upon § 67-1850 in the form of a PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT. This section takes a real set of facts and presents the legal case against how a local Missouri government acted when presented with a request for a copy of its GIS data. The names will be changed to give the local government some dignity. Part 6 will be presented in the following posts:
- PLAINTIFF’S SUGGESTIONS IN SUPPORT OF HIS MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (28 of 30)
- PLAINTIFF’S STATEMENT OF UNDISPUTED FACT (29 of 30)
- SUPPORTING DOCUMENTS (30 of 30)
 The author suggests that many definitions of the term “query” do not convey the true power of the tool. A query is best understood as the synergistic product of matching GIS software with data sets. A query allows the questioner to ask penetrating and logical questions of data sets, the results of which often reveal otherwise undiscoverable spatial patterns or new insights unavailable without a means of displaying the result as a map.
 See Tasha Wade and Shelly Sommer, A to Z GIS: An Illustrated Dictionary of Geographic Information Systems (Redlands, CA: Esri Press, 2006). The book defines “query” as “a request to select features or records from a database. A query is often written as a statement or logical expression.” See also the definition of “query” provided in Esri’s online GIS Dictionary (last visited July 29, 2019): “[i]n ArcMap, a [query] request … examines feature or tabular attributes based on user-selected criteria and displays only those features or records that satisfy the criteria.”
 See Sierra Club v. Superior Court, 57 Cal. 4th 157, 161 (Cal. 2013). A unanimous California Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s holding that Orange County could license its GIS data for over $250,000 to the Sierra Club of California when the Sierra Club requested the information in order to ensure Orange County was in compliance with its wetland preservation mandates. “The issue in this case is whether the OC Landbase is subject to disclosure in a GIS file format at the actual cost of duplication under the California Public Records Act … or whether, as the County contends, it is covered by the statute’s exclusion of ‘[c]omputer software’ … a term that ‘includes computer mapping systems’ … from the definition of a public record. We hold that although GIS mapping software falls within the ambit of this statutory exclusion, a GIS-formatted database like the OC Landbase does not. Accordingly, such databases are public records that, unless otherwise exempt, must be produced upon request at the actual cost of duplication.” Id.
 See David Herzog, Mapping the News: Case Studies in GIS and Journalism (Redlands, CA: Esri Press, 2003). David Herzog is a journalism professor at the University of Missouri–Columbia. Despite the passage of time, his 2003 book Mapping the News stands as an excellent guide to how GIS can be deployed by the media and by citizens to monitor the actions of their government—at all administrative levels.
 Id. at 20.
 Id. at 14.
 Id. at 18.
 Id. at 19.
 Without the analytical tools GIS provides, it is doubtful that some trusting Florida homeowners or their insurers would have had any legal recourse, and municipal and county corruption would still find a safe haven in the Sunshine State. The Miami Herald’s use of GIS analysis is illustrative not only of GIS’s inherent power to penetrate otherwise hidden government functions but also of the public good that a government data bank has to offer. Transparent GIS data may even increase the public’s perception that their local government is operating appropriately.
 Herzog, supra note 4, at 20.
 Mo. Rev. Stat. § 67.1850 (2013)
 Id. § 610 (2013)
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Comment by Jon Cole, Merebrook LLC Land Surveying – Posted by Chris Dunn Chris, I finally got around to reading…