Freedom of Information and Geodata

So we’ve been having an interesting discussion on the geodata committee of OSGeo, on the topic of VMAP1 and getting access to it with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I’ve been talking with Dave recently, and they’re setting up a non-profit that will be ideally suited to go after this type of stuff in the courts. Their current focus is more on information the Police keeps private, but are quite in to the idea of going after geographic data. So Mike and I met with him on Friday, discussing both metrocard FOIA and VMAP1 FOIA. I shot off an email to the geodata osgeo list about it, mostly expecting people to be excited about the fact that I had a great resource to use (Dave and his soon to be organization) to help out with this stuff. The response, however, ranged from been there, done that, gave up, to fairly negative – litigation is a dirty word, we should just ask more nicely for it. I concede that there should be an organization that plays nice and makes contacts and gets data that way. And OSGeo is easily one of the ideal organizations to do this. But I’m still interested in using another organization, perhaps TOPP, to actually go after some of this data in a more ‘aggressive’ manner.

What’s interesting to me about all of this is looking at my root assumptions about government, relative to those who feel that litigation for FOIA stuff is ‘highly controversial and antagonistic’. It probably comes down to the fact that I don’t really trust the government. Though that statement simplifies things far too much. I don’t think the governments out to get us, that it’s an evil institution that must be smashed to the ground. Or that our system of government is bad. On the contrary, I think that our system of government is pretty good. But I also believe that it could be better, that there are potentially more just systems of organizing and decision making for human beings, that our current form of democracy is the end all and be all (indeed at times I fear it’s taken a turn for the worse). But let’s focus for now on our current system of government, instead of utopistic futures.

I believe that it is my responsibility to do things like pursue FOIA litigation. I feel that institutions have a tendency towards stagnation and even corruption. At times I despair and feel the current massive influence of corporations on the state, the fact that money rules, is just an incredibly advanced form of corruption and propaganda. Given this tendency, there needs to be forces that keep the institutions honest and rise up if things get too bad. Thankfully, the founders of our current system of government were downright brilliant, able to build a set of documents which helped ushered in the more worldcentric values of freedom of equality which existed in only a majority of the population. Wilber elaborates:

The brilliance of the Founding Fathers was that they found a way to take this rare, elite stance–demanding equality and freedom for all–and force it on an entire population as the backbone of a series of legal and behavioral codes that demanded that, even if individuals are not at moral-stage 5 in their own interiors, they must conform their exterior behavior to rules consistent with a moral-stage-5 act (e.g., you do not have to love me, but if you shoot me they will lock you up). Thus, at their best, the laws of America embodied an attempt to encode higher, postconventional, worldcentric responses–regardless of race, sex, color, or creed–implemented with the consent of the governed (the moral-stage-5 social contract), even if those laws were developmentally ahead of most of the governed. (read more at ‘The Deconstruction of the World Trade Center’, part 2, though the whole thing is worth reading)

Throughout our history various documents have pointed the way to a more just world, and I firmly believe the Freedom of Information act was one of them. My lawyer friends say it’s an incredibly solid piece of law, that really clearly states that just about everything that a government does should be open and available to its citizens. Which makes infinite sense when viewed through the lens of what a truly democratic society should look like. But we’ve become used to a government often antagonistic to its people, and doing all that it can to keep things certain things secret. This can be for downright malicious reasons, but we need to remember not to attribute malice what can be explained by stupidity or ignorance. Often it’s the attitude that politicians feel they know what’s best, or even silly things like fear of reprisal if their works not perfect, as I hit on in ‘The Metadata Problem‘. Indeed I feel the same thing about corporations, that they aren’t evil controlled by evil capitalists, they’re just a weird institution that has followed its own logic too far and gotten out of hand.

The nice thing about government though is that it was designed with checks and balances that are ultimately in the hands of citizens (unlike corporations, which are only checked by shareholders, which often just stands in for ‘profit’). And so I feel it is the responsibility of conscious and informed citizens to make use of those checks and balances for a more open society. This is what I feel about FOIA litigation, it is the best way to engage with government. The law is crystal clear on the fact that data should be open. Yet institutions constantly give up a number of excuses as to why it should not be, the majority of which aren’t in line with the spirit or the letter of the FOIA. They are institutions that seek to propagate themselves, and/or are staffed by people who are ignorant and/or seeking to cover their stupidity. So they will naturally be hesitant to turn over information – if you’re doing a poor job you wouldn’t want to turn over evidence of that. But the point of FOIA is so that citizens can be aware if people in their government are doing a poor job. And of course it often ends up antagonistic, people will fight tooth and nail if they know there’s some information that can really harm them. Which makes me want to go after the information even more. I mean, I’m all for asking nicely initially. But when they constantly say they’re working with you, while giving away nothing and offering up any available excuse (say money for processing before 9/11 and ‘security’ after), then it gets a bit old.

The interesting thing about all FOIA litigation is that it always starts with a polite request for the information. Which is then denied, and an appeal is even made. Litigation is the last step, when reasonable requests have already been denied. I’m not sure how much asking more nicely can help. Of course there could be some backroom deal to let someone get some information, but I feel for a more open society that information needs to be truly open. It doesn’t help society as a whole if an architect can get access to the data for their newest plans, it only helps when the data is open for remixing, for citizen analysis, for reuse for other purposes.

A final note, the current situation is downright shitty, since there must exist high quality imagery – satellite and aerial photos – that have previously never had access given to because of ‘security’ reasons. And there was nothing about that statement you could really argue with. But now Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and others have made incredibly high quality imagery available to anyone with an internet connection. So it’s obvious that releasing the governments similar data is not going to increase the security risk in the slightest, since some terrorist can already get access to the same data. So the only ones being hurt are those who are not interested in only getting their maps through big commercial providers, who don’t want to be advertised to, who want to build new interesting applications on their own.

But yes, in conclusion, I feel it’s the responsibility of citizens to demand and exercise the freedoms stated as given by the government. I’m not for a rampant litigation society, and don’t jump at the chance to sue someone. But in this case the courts are the branch of government which holds the power in check. Indeed lately the courts have done the best work of the three branches of government to protect freedom, currently laying the smack down on the Bush administration to curtail the broad powers they’ve been taking for themselves (see NYTimes (though probably will expire soon)). But for the courts to work, cases must be raised to engage them if the normal processes fail. They can not try and judge what does not come before them. If everyone just accepts things they way they are, then little will change. And if we are to cease to care, if apathy overtakes, then the future does not look bright – we will be dominated by the institutions that we made, instead of we the people leading the way to a better tomorrow.

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11 thoughts on “Freedom of Information and Geodata

  1. Dave is David B. Rankin, Attorney at Law. He’s a friend of mine in New York, an independent lawyer doing lots of interesting stuff. The non-profit he’s setting up is called the ‘Foundation for Respectful and Open Government’. Not much of a web presence yet, but if anyone’s interesting in talking to him/needs a lawyer, I’m happy to put you in touch. He’s also the Dave in my Conversations on what’s next post.

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