Wisconsin Geospatial News

Association provides insights on data privacy, policy and access

The Wisconsin Land Information Association (WLIA) held a regional meeting in June to explore the current state of data dissemination policy and provide insight into issues such as privacy, copyright,  and GIS law that accommodate both open access and revenue-generating objectives. These topics seem to crop up every couple of years as a workshop topic, leading me to conclude two things: 1) technology continues to change the way government agencies handle these issues in their business operations; and 2) units of government have widely varying policies and philosophies in this area, leading the community to periodically question if there have been identified best practices or model policies emerge recently.

The workshop had a few overriding themes including:

  • Facilitating understanding by state legislators and constituents of the nature of digital land records/GIS data and what privacy constraints do and do not already exist
  • The role of the internet in advancing data dissemination methods ahead of policy
  • The acknowledged role of informal agreements in Wisconsin data sharing
  • How open/public records laws and legal liability affect local policy

Senator Erpenbach kicked off the workshop with some perspective on how he and the legislature view privacy concerns. He used the analogy of identity theft and the lack of policy leading to action in that area. When asked what association members could do to clarify issues and encourage policy formation, the Senator encouraged us all to, “Approach your legislator and make them aware of what you do.” For me, this implied the need for transparency in what we do and what our policies are in doing it – from data collection to dissemination. It’s one thing to make someone aware – it is another to have a place they can come back and be reminded.

This need for transparency was re-iterated in subsequent talks by David Hart, Lea Shanley and Jaime Stoltenberg as they related their particular experiences, case studies and research on data access in Wisconsin – each concluding in their own way that there is no rule of thumb when it comes to data policy, privacy, or access. Stoltenberg, Map and GIS Librarian at the UW-Madison Robinson Map Library, made a call for consideration of archiving and preservation of data, and the role libraries and online clearinghouse repositories might play. Shanley focused on privacy concerns in her case studies of county-based Internet access of land records.  Hart summarized how far we’ve come in Internet publication and emphasized the continued need for a state survey mechanism to track progress in developing consistent policy.

All of these presentations were underscored by the theme that Internet technology had advanced our data publishing abilities ahead of complementary privacy and access policy development.

Presentations from Waukesha County and the City of Waukesha demonstrated successful partnering in data integration and increasingly easy data access due to joint planning efforts. Don Dittmar from Waukesha County spoke of the benefits of a tiered-access approach in both raw data exchange and Internet access to their land information.

But it was the panel discussion that drew on the broadest set of data producers and stakeholders and from which it is hoped we took away some future directions.  To that end, and from my perspective, here are some of the summary conclusions from the panel that deserve further attention:

  • Pressures to charge fees for local GIS data still exist, vary significantly and range from County board revenue expectations to justifying a ‘user fee’ for data support, to resources for sustainable data maintenance
  • In many cases, undocumented data sharing between public agencies occurs regularly and with little friction or associated cost
  • While there is some sentiment that land records data models ought to be “bottom up” and fit local needs first, this is tempered by a growing desire for consistency between counties and adoption of best practices
  • Many would like to see some particularly useful GIS data layers aggregated across regions or the state, but believe this is the role of the agency “one level up”
  • To gain value through application, generate creative data development, and move toward a more consistent approach, Wisconsin would benefit from standards recommendations for data distribution policies that address online presentation and appropriate disclaimers

From this meeting, it became evident that data privacy, access policies and practices are evolving, particularly at the local level. More than ever, there is a general desire to have standards that would support moving toward more consistent policy and practices. This workshop was timely, as these topics can be addressed most effectively and integrally as part of a strategic plan for GIS in Wisconsin.