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Supreme Court Clarifies Distinction Between GIS Data And Software Under The Public Records Act

In Sierra Club v. The Superior Court of Orange County, the California Supreme Court ruled last week that data in a geographic information system (“GIS”) file format is a public record subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”, Government Code section 6250 et seq.).  The Supreme Court explained that, although GIS mapping software falls within the CPRA statutory exclusion of “computer software” generally, the ordinary meaning of “computer software,” does not include data that is stored in computers and formatted in such a way to be used with particular software.  If data in a GIS file format is statutorily exempt from CPRA disclosure, then any information stored on a computer in a specific format to be manipulated by software would arguably be exempt as well, and that is not what the Legislature intended.

GIS is software that transforms geographic data and statistics into maps that reveal relationships, patterns, and other information in a visual-spatial format.  In this case, the Sierra Club sought Orange County’s parcel data in a GIS file format in order to convey to the public the status of whether large areas of open space in the County were protected from or threatened by development.  Orange County argued that such data was exempt from the PRA under the statutory exclusion of “computer software.”  Government Code section 6254.9(b) defines “computer software” to include “computer mapping systems, computer programs, and computer graphics systems.”  Both the Superior Court and the Court of Appeal ruled in favor of Orange County, finding that the evidence at trial and the legislative history of “computer mapping systems” supported Orange County’s position that GIS-formatted files were too closely integrated with GIS software, and that such data was exempt from disclosure as part of a complex, unified computer mapping system.

The California Supreme Court reversed.  Finding the legislative history inconclusive and erring on the side of disclosing public records, the Court held that, although the GIS software itself is exempt from the CPRA as “computer software,” data in a GIS file format is not.  The Court explained, “The format of information is not generally determinative of the public record status of government information.”  Because “[a]lmost all data stored in computers are formatted in some manner to be used with application software,” exempting the GIS data itself would have the effect of excluding any computer mapping databases simply because they are files manipulated by mapping software.  The Court found this result would contravene the CPRA, which expressly states that “information . . . stored in a computer” is a type of public record subject to disclosure.  (Government Code section 6254.9(d).)  The Court also noted that GIS-formatted mapping data provides important information to the public because “it is critical to the non-profit sector’s ability to monitor and respond to government actions involving real property.”  Consequently, GIS databases are public records and must be produced upon request at the actual cost of duplication, unless otherwise exempt.