Use Esri GIS and Your Data Becomes Inextricably Intertwined

We talk about open data quite a bit but clearly if you use the Esri platform, it has huge hidden costs to get that data out.

The Supreme Court of Ohio today denied a writ of mandamus sought by Portsmouth real estate appraiser Robert Gambill to compel the production of certain public records by Scioto County Engineer Craig Opperman.

So the courts usually don’t help liberate data we’ve paid for, not really big news here. But what caught me eye was the cost Gambill has to pay because Scioto County made a horrible business decision to lock their data up in Esri’s silo.

In a 6-1 per curiam opinion, the court held that Opperman met the requirements of the Ohio Public Records Act by offering to provide Gambill with a copy of the county’s electronic database containing deed information and aerial photos of all property in the county if Gambill paid the estimated $2,000 cost of separating that data from proprietary mapmaking software protected by U.S. patent laws that is “inextricably intertwined” with the data on the engineer’s computer.

$2,000? Wow, why would it cost that much to deliver the data?

But the engineer’s office cannot separate the requested raw data from the exempt Esri software files.

Oh snap, the engineer’s office has paid probably millions of dollars on a proprietary GIS system and it locks the data up in “Esri software files”. Not only do taxpayers foot the cost to create such a crazy GIS system, but then they double pay when they want the data back out. The court says:

Gambill may obtain paper copies of maps and aerial photographs of properties in Scioto County by inputting search terms into the computer at the engineer’s office and paying the cost for each document printed.

Legacy GIS

Clearly Scioto County is locked into the 1970’s with this Esri GIS system. I can only assume you input the data into a Prime Computer terminal and get a dot matrix print copy out the back. Ah but big GIS consulting company with huge overhead to the rescue!

“Notwithstanding the inability of the engineer’s office to separate its requested electronic database from the exempt Esri software, it received an estimate from Woolpert—the company that the engineer’s office had hired to make its information system compatible with that of the auditor’s office after the auditor’s office updated its system in 2007—to extract the underlying electronic data from the intertwined exempt software. Woolpert estimated that it would cost $2,000, plus the cost of a hard drive. The engineer’s office then passed along this quote to Gambill. … Opperman acted reasonably in asking Woolpert to provide an estimate to extract the requested electronic data from the exempt Esri software files

Oh my Woolpert! Way to sock it to the taxpayer. At least one judge sees through this nuttiness. Emphasis mine…

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer dissented, stating that in his view “The county engineer in this case has intertwined public records with proprietary software and expects citizens seeking public records to pay an exorbitant price to untie the knot. A person seeking public records should expect to pay the price for copying the records, but not the price for a public entity’s mistake in purchasing inefficient software. … The holding in this case encourages public entities desiring secrecy to hide public records within a software lockbox and require individual citizens to provide the golden key to unlock it.”

Seriously, now many times are we going to go down this path with these silos?

Huge hat tip to Brian Timoney!

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