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URISA Board Declines to Sign Amicus Brief

March 2, 2012
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Des Plaines, Ill. - At its Feb. 24, 2012 meeting, the URISA board of directors again considered the draft Sierra Club vs. Orange County, California amicus brief. A board motion to sign an earlier version of the brief on Feb. 2 failed to pass a vote.

The board’s deliberation followed a joint URISA Board and Policy Committee conference call to discuss the board’s Feb. 2 decision, in light of the Policy’s Committee’s recommendation to sign the brief.  Glenn O’Grady, policy committee chair, was invited to again discuss the matter with the board during the Feb. 24 meeting.

After the California First Amendment Coalition won its public records act lawsuit against Santa Clara County in April 2009, the Sierra Club filed a similar suit against Orange County. The Sierra Club wanted Orange County's parcel basemap in GIS-compatible database formats for its wildlands conservation campaign but couldn't afford to pay Orange County what it was asking for the basemap. The Superior Court ruled in favor of Orange County. Sierra Club appealed the case, but the 4th District Court of Appeal affirmed the decision in support of Orange County. In response, members of the GIS community, led by Bruce Joffe, founder of the Open Data Consortium project, developed an amicus curiae brief outlining their position that GIS-formatted data is not software, and that computer mapping system software does not include GIS data.

Before considering the question of signing the SC v. OC amicus brief, the URISA board drafted and approved the following data sharing policy that reflects URISA’s role as an international organization, and the need for the organization to be aware of data policies and situations in many countries:

It is URISA's policy that all units of government should freely provide the means for their citizens to fully participate in their own governance by publishing and otherwise supplying geospatial data to all interested parties. URISA believes that governmental geospatial programs must be appropriately funded and that there are multiple acceptable mechanisms for such funding.  Credible studies have shown that the value of geospatial data to the governmental agencies and the people they serve increases with the breadth of data sharing.

The board then discussed reconsideration of signing the draft amicus brief; however, no motion to sign the brief reached the floor for a vote by the board. The board did agree to continue advocating for the principles outlined in the data sharing policy.  Specific actions will include continued pursuit of URISA’s 2011-2012 Advocacy Agenda item 2 (Nationwide Development of High Quality, Publicly Accessible Geospatial Data), participation in COGO’s URISA/NSGIC – Data Sharing Legal & Policy Framework initiative, and advocating for the newly approved URISA data sharing policy with state governors and legislatures.

“Individual URISA members are free to make their own choice to sign or not to sign the SC v. OC amicus brief,” said Greg Babinski, MA, GISP, URISA president, in a statement issued by the organization. “The value of a professional organization is not to tell its members what to think in a case like this. It is to create an environment where each individual can be exposed to the range of arguments about the issue so that they can make their own decision.  This would be the case no matter how the board voted.”

The amicus brief was submitted to the California Supreme Court on March 2 and included the signatures of 212 GIS professionals and 23 GIS organizations in support of Sierra Club.

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