Free GIS data for Western Australians, can’t or won’t?

Posted by on Feb 18, 2014 in Innovation, News, Property | No Comments

Does your suburb have as much parkland per person as the next one? What’s the average distance between houses and bus stops in your area? How fragmented are Perth’s cycle paths? Government agencies in WA and Australia currently produce or acquire GIS data that can be used to answer these questions. Yet, those files are not made freely available to the public, often because of licensing arrangements that restrict distribution (often requiring interested parties to pay an exorbitant fee for access). With so much to gain from open access, perhaps it is time for WA government agencies to develop alternatives that enable free distribution of spatial data?

Spatially referenced data is costly to produce. With increasing pressure on government agencies to be financially sustainable, restricting access and selling data for cost-recovery or even profit may seem like a good idea. But there are holes in it.

People and businesses have, in theory, already paid for the data via taxes. Legislation governing access to information in WA[1] limits the amount that can be charged to the public to the cost of procuring it (i.e. locating the file and printing), which should be negligible if files were to be available for self-service download on the web. Then there are basic democratic principles, which involve guaranteeing free public access to information where this improves government accountability (maps provide fantastic means to test the effectiveness, efficiency and equity of many resource allocation decisions).

What is currently happening is data simply does not get used, except by the few able to pay for it. Restricted access to GIS data means every day we lose opportunities for improved governance, research and innovation, business efficiencies, and even jobs (via new products and firms). We miss a chance at better, smarter decision-making.

On the government side, things may not be great, either: an American research paper showed government agencies selling data in the US often do not realise the expected revenues but actually report revenue losses[2]. The value of GIS data, they argue, increases with use, so the emphasis should be on getting as many people as possible using it.

It can be done. A bunch of American councils are already providing their GIS data for free[3], and in Australia, Launceston City Council (Tassie) is one of a few pioneering Australian councils to offer free GIS data download. A URISA paper (link below) proposes a number of alternatives for funding GIS units without the need to charge people[4]. So it is happening, only the pace is painfully slow.

Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Sierra Club over a case of access to land parcel data in Orange County, after the council asked the group to pay a $375,000 licensing fee to get the files[5]. It took them six years and who-knows-how-much-in-court-fees to get to that. How long and how much is it going to be for WA?

[1] Freedom of Information Act (WA) 1992

[2] Joffe, B 2005, Ten ways to support GIS without selling data, URISA journal, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp.27-33 (accessed at)

[3] A quick Google search brought up Clay County and Ramsey County in Minnesota.

[5] Badger, E and Johnson, S 2013, Yes, GIS files are public data, too, The Atlantic Cities Place Matters, online resource, accessed on 17 February 2014, at