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Maryland Legislation Would Encourage Release of GIS Data

A new proposal recommended by the Maryland Council on Open Data would remove fees associated with access to state GIS information.

Maryland is considering new policy that would make state GIS data more accessible to the general public.

SB 94, sponsored by Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, eliminates the ability of local governments to charge fees for providing GIS services. The bill also repeals a state requirement that only the person who has entered into a contract with a government is permitted online access to the data.

The legislation is one of the first recommendations from the state’s Council on Open Data, which formed last year. The measure would replace language in Maryland Code passed in 1992 that enabled state and local agencies to recoup the cost of reproducing the data or giving access to it.

Maryland governments could still charge a fee for new GIS data services or products, but not for existing information.

In an interview with Government Technology, Ferguson said the bill is something the council saw as low-hanging fruit and an early win to show progress for the council and build momentum. He explained that “very few” government entities are deriving significant revenue from GIS data fees.

The Maryland Department of Legislative Services’ fiscal summary of SB 94 supports Ferguson’s claim. The department’s nonpartisan analysis noted that the changes to state law would have minimal impact on both state and local finances. In addition, the summary revealed that most state agencies and local governments already provide GIS services for free.

Ferguson added that the council’s main concern isn’t the fee, but the contractual requirement in current law regarding the use of GIS data.

“It requires an entering of an agreement between the requestor and the government entity,” Ferguson said. “That sort of transaction cost of entering into an agreement inhibits the free and open nature of public data by its very existence.”

That hasn’t stopped the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) from opposing the bill, however. Leslie Knapp Jr., legal and policy counsel for MACo, filed testimony with the Maryland Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Feb. 11, citing concerns with the measure.

Specifically MACo opposes removing the ability of local governments to charge a “reasonable share” of the GIS data system's overhead costs. Those costs can include items such as database maintenance, hardware and software, and quality control.

Knapp wrote that while MACo has no issue with most of SB 94’s changes, the organization is worried about the fiscal impact on counties that use the fee to cover their costs. He also indicated a willingness to work with Ferguson to address the fiscal concerns.

Ferguson admitted that there might be some small counties that were using the law to garner revenue. But he believes that the impact of SB 94, particularly the open government gains and public policy impetus of releasing the data, trump any financial reason behind keeping the fees on the books.

“Our goal here is for this to be our first step in a long road toward … restoring faith in democracy, and having data that is open, accessible and transparent,” Ferguson said.

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.