Right to Know vs. Right to Sell

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Right to Know vs. Right to Sell

By Neil Munro
Staff Writer

State and local governments are facing off against companies around the country for control of a vital resource - data.

Both sides want to squeeze revenue from high-tech maps, criminal records, databases of driver's licenses and the names of university students. Even the lists of pets vaccinated for rabies are worth fighting over.

But the technology and the millions of dollars at stake can hide the basic issue that faces government decision-makers: whether to create public records for the benefit of the public or whether to exploit them for revenue.

That whole issue "really becomes a very basic policy choice," said David Bralow, an Orlando, Fla.-based lawyer with Holland & Knight.

"It is an issue that states and local government are grappling with. ... I would argue that in areas where it is beneficial to do cost recovery, government ought to be doing it," argued Tim Baker, an official at Maryland's Property Mapping Division, whose $300,000 annual budget is to be paid by the sale of computerized maps drawn from state data.

In Indianapolis, a federal court rejected a lawsuit that sought to derail an outsourcing deal dubbed Civic
Link, which allowed the local government to sell access to court records for grossly inflated prices, according to Shari Obermeyer, president of Central Indiana Paralegal Service Inc.

The CivicLink system charges $4,000 per month for data that she had previously downloaded for $200 a month, she said, adding that the county only offers four computers to view the data for free.

"The technology is great, but it depends on who has control of it," Obermeyer said.

In Orlando, the Florida Veterinary Medical Association is appealing a court decision that would force the state to publish a list of pets and their owners' addresses that have been given rabies vaccinations, which are required by local ordinances.

Such lists are valuable because they can be used by pet stores to mail product advertisements to pet owners, cutting into the vets' sales of similar products, said Bralow, who successfully argued the case on behalf of the Sarasota Herald Tribune. If the veterinarians lose their case, they will try to persuade the state legislature to let them keep the list secret, he predicted.

In Maryland, the Property Mapping Division of the state's office of planning earns its $300,000 budget by selling digital maps that combine information drawn from property tax assessments and building permits. This practice short-circuits the marketplace and denies the companies a long-standing business, argues Rufus Lusk, a spokesman for Experian, a data-collection company based in Orange, Calif. Experian's annual $600 million revenue includes roughly $100 million from the sale of property data.

In Herndon, Va., executives at Vargis LLC are mulling ways to stop the local government from freely distributing high-resolution photographs of fast-growing Fairfax County, Va. Vargis currently sells similar photographs, which are used by local builders to plan real estate projects.

States are trying to sell their data because they are short of cash, said Paul McMasters, the First Amendment Ombudsman at The Freedom Forum, Arlington, Va. The forum is a $900 million foundation formed with money from a newspaper chain, and seeks to protect media freedoms, including access to government data.

Many states already sell data collected when granting driver's licenses to automobile owners. For example, Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles is expected to take in $17 million during 1997 from the sale of information such as the number of people who own particular cars.

Often, the sale of data is negotiated as part of outsourcing contracts, such as the Civic
Link contract awarded to Chicago-based Ameritech, McMasters said.

"Privatization is a worrisome issue" because it threatens the public's free access to government data, said McMasters. By promoting the sale of government data, privatization "becomes a revenue generator for government and a profit sector for vendors, and the taxpayer is the one footing the bill for both," he said.

"We are charging a convenience fee for accessing a public record from a remote location," responded Ameritech's spokesman Rob Lanesey. However, Ameritech is pulling out of the CivicLink contracts by the end of 1998 in Marion County and DuPage County, Ill., to concentrate on selling more flexible systems for a wider variety of customers, including businesses, he said.

Sometimes, local governments claim the extra revenue will help pay for enhanced government services, such as the production of high-tech computerized maps, dubbed geographic information systems, that can combine photographs, maps, tax records and building permits. For example, Maryland sells a high-tech map of each of its 24 local jurisdictions. Each of the 24 digital maps, collectively dubbed MdProperty View, sell for $500.

But the state would raise more revenue by allowing local companies to combine and sell the data, argues Lusk. However, Maryland "will not allow anyone else to get the raw data and build competitive products," thus creating more local jobs, he said.

To make its case, Experian is lobbying the state government in Annapolis. "We are trying to convince the lawmakers that it is a much better way to go for the state to gather the information and make it available for others to build on," he said.

Industry is also filing court cases and lobbying Congress to ease state and local restrictions on data, he said.

"There is a lot of competition going on because everyone wants to make some money," said Mary Tsui, a senior partner with Land Systems Group, a consulting company in Monterey, Calif. "Government in particular very much wants to recover the cost of their [computer] systems, but there is no evidence that governments have ever recovered their costs from the sale of information," even as they hinder citizens' access to government data, she said.

But if the local governments can't raise revenues to pay for improved GIS products, local governments won't build those products, said Bob Daddow, director of the Department of Management and Budget in Oakland County, Mich. The county has a budget of $500 million to support a population of 1.1 million people living in the cities of Pontiac, Troy and Southfield, and must pay $25 million to fix its year 2000 software problem with an annual information technology budget of only $13 million, he said.

"I'll be damned if I am going to spend millions of dollars making this [improved GIS] information available ... because I have other projects to spend my money on," including higher-priority computer projects for the local police and health authorities, he said.

Daddow hopes to get the county's improved GIS system up and running by mid-1998. If all goes well, it will offer homeowners and contractors instant access via a network to a constantly updated database of photographs, property maps, tax records and other data, he said. Daddow said he does not expect to cover the full cost of the new GIS network from commercial fees, and will offer free access to the GIS database at offices downtown.

But these GIS systems are also valuable for local governments, even without commercial sales, said industry officials. For example, Autometric Inc., based in Alexandria, Va., is combining photographs and Alexandria city information into a high-tech database to help the city's tax inspectors better estimate the taxable value of local property. "The amount of money they would recoup in [increased tax] assessments alone would more than quadruple what they paid" to buy the GIS system, said Ron Podmilsak, a division manager at the company.

In Michigan's Oakland County, the improved GIS system could help the county identify the location and owners of the county's 250,000 water wells, said Daddow. "That would be interesting to a well-driller or a septic tank seller [seeking new customers] ... so that you could do a marketing campaign targeted to [the owners of] 10-year old septic tanks," he said.

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