GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Going public with GIS
Geographic information system (GIS) technology can be used for a variety of government services, including tracking 911 calls for a sheriff’s department, helping assessors determine property values and allowing health departments to map disease outbreaks. Used internally, the technology can create a warehouse of information for several departments and can improve the efficiency of many government operations. However, when agencies consider putting that same information on the Internet, they may struggle with questions about taxpayers’ rights, residents’ privacy and the technology’s cost to the community.
The Freedom of Information Act stipulates that records collected with tax dollars are the property of residents and, therefore, should be available to them upon request. When communities make their GIS available on the Internet, they make those records more accessible to residents. Information that once may have been available only by making a trip downtown can be found on a whim: A new homeowner can see his property line; a sewer contractor can find the locations of sewer lines; a high school football star can locate his former coach. However, some people could use the information for less benign reasons. For example, a recently released convicted felon could trace a judge to his home.
For those reasons, some agencies limit the information they post on their online GIS. For example, when Jay County, Ind., officials decided to put the county’s GIS online, they wanted to deny public access to the 911 maps because those maps specifically identify the residents’ names at each address. The rural Indiana county lists only mailing addresses in the GIS out of concern for privacy. For emergency purposes, fire and rescue personnel can access a 911 map and know who lives in each home. Any resident who wants to protect the privacy of his home address sets up a post office box as his official mailing address. If someone searches the GIS for a specific resident, the online search would reveal only his mailing address, a post office box.
After deciding privacy and access policies, local governments must decide whether to charge fees for online GIS access. Many local government officials believe that offering GIS online without a fee increases its utility and encourages residents to adopt it. The taxpayers already have paid for the technology, they argue, and, generally, the administrative cost to recoup the fee is greater than the fee itself.
However, GIS data can be used by businesses for profit. For example, a pool contractor could access a map and a database with names and addresses for the properties in his area without swimming pools. That information could have tremendous value for the contractor, who might be willing to pay for access to that type of market research.
Online use of GIS applications is in its infancy, and few standards exist to govern its development. As local governments experience the growing pains of the burgeoning technology, each community will debate the positives and negatives of accessibility issues. Until standards are set, local governments must rely on their experiences with the technology and residents’ views about privacy, access and fees to make informed GIS accessibility decisions.
The author is director for Indianapolis-based Plexis Group.