Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Of, By, and For the people my ass!

Back on December 25th (yes, Christmas; I don't have family to spend holidays with so it's pretty much just another day for me) I fired off an email to the HMFIC of the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) for the city of Billings, inquiring about the availability of GIS data. I've gotten interested in what's possible with GIS, and was hoping to get a set of "real world" data that I could have a look at in different ways.

Well, a month later, I got an initial response back:
I'm sorry for not responding sooner. The City's GIS data is not available for direct download, and at this time we do not have a publicly accessible web mapping service. Yellowstone County provides a public map service that makes available information about property, streets, administrative boundaries, and other layers, as well as imagery, topo maps, etc. The State of Montana also has a public state-wide map service which provides some of the same information as does the Yellowstone County map service. Both sites can be found using Google.

Yellowstone County: http://www.co.yellowstone.mt.gov/mapping/webgis.asp
State of Montana: http://gis.mt.gov/

I will be glad to answer any questions.

[name, rank, and serial number removed to protect the guilty]

-----Original Message-----
From: Dave Merriman [mailto:dkmerriman@gmail.com]
Sent: Friday, December 25, 2009 2:31 PM
Subject: City GIS data

Is the GIS data for the city available for download or otherwise available to the public? If so, how might I get a copy?

David Merriman
To that, I responded with
You said that it is not available for direct download; if I were to
provide the media (cds/dvds), would it be possible to get a copy that

Either I'm on somebody's Watch List, the dingleberry doesn't want to be bothered, or he's so low on the food chain that he doesn't have the horsepower to make a decision. The following is his reply to my second email request, and MY response:
> David,
> Per your request for the City's GIS data: in that the City's GIS data
> are considered public records, in order for us to fulfill your
> request a Request For Public Records must first be filled out,
> specifying what data is being requested.

I must confess that I find this requirement to be somewhat at odds with
the policies in place for the State and Yellowstone county; both readily
offer GIS data for download (links to follow).

> The GIS data in its
> entirety could fill dozens of DVDs, and may be better copied to an
> external hard drive, to be provided by the requestor. In addition,
> the City will charge for whatever time is required to fulfill the
> request. The City of Billings GIS data is stored in multiple
> databases, and in literally hundreds or thousands of individual
> files. A request such as this could take many hours or days to
> fulfill, unless a more specific set of data is requested.

This seems rather farfetched, to me. The basic Yellowstone County
datasets offered by the county and state would each fit comfortably onto a single 700MB CD (see http://www.co.yellowstone.mt.gov/mapping/webgis.asp
and http://nris.mt.gov/gis/gisdatalib/gisDataList.aspx). Still, if the
City GIS Coordinator isn't sure of how much GIS data the City has
actually accumulated, an external drive could be provided.

I do have a problem with your statement that fulfilling a request such as
mine could take "many hours or days"; even the free GIS software for my
Linux system will cheerfully export GIS data and maps _in toto_. Surely,
the City finds it worthwhile to regularly review the GIS maps that are
available - why would it take "hours" to simply copy a map layer to an
external hard drive? As regards the "multiple databases" and "hundreds
or thousands of files", isn't that the whole POINT of having GIS
software, so that all those files can be accessed quickly and easily?

> Furthermore, certain data may be considered a matter of public safety
> under Montana Code Annotated, and pending an analysis by City staff
> may not be available to the general public.

I would certainly expect public safety data to be excluded from my
request. Still, absent any information from the City regarding what data
is available, I would have to phrase any request for GIS data as
broadly as possible. Even so, I would hope that the various datasets
(water supplies, sewage, storm drainage, etc) would be on individual GIS
map layers so as to allow City employees (or other users) to view only
those areas of interest.

> The Request For Public Records can be found on the City's website
> under the Clerk and Recorders page:
> http://ci.billings.mt.us/index.aspx?nid=104.

As an FYI, the Request form is now located at the URL:


While the City may not explicitly make the GIS data available via a web
site (or even page), I find it troubling that there doesn't seem to have
been any thought given to the idea that a mere citizen might want access
to the data that has already been paid for.

I would have HOPED that my initial request about the GIS data would have drawn a response along the lines of "Sure, we've got Water, Sewage,
Electric Distribution, Storm Drainage, Rights of Way, Property
Ownership, Physical Addresses, [further list of subjects]. We can't
release ______ and _____ for public safety reasons, but you're welcome to any of the others. Each dataset takes up ABOUT ________ bytes, and you'll have to bring your own storage medium for us to copy it to. Make an appointment, and we can copy it over for you in about _____ minutes, tops. This isn't any big deal, since we keep a copy of the files handy, so there won't be any charge."

Instead, what I got was an initial attempt to shuttle me off to something
completely different from what I inquired about. A followup got me the
message that I've responded to in this email.

Taking this (your second) response at face value, I am left with the
distinct impression that either you don't want to be bothered by an
actual Billings resident and threw out a bunch of word salad to try
and discourage me; or you actually don't have any idea of how much GIS
data the City has or what that data consists of.

Mr. XXXXX, I made an honest and polite request for assistance and
information. I would think that an open and honest governmental body -
one with an interest in actually serving the public - would have
responded much differently than you have. If you plan to continue with
the attitude that you have demonstrated to me thus far, I would suggest
that you get your job title changed from "GIS Coordinator" to "GIS

Since you have seen fit to CC your email to the City Attorney, Assistant
City Manager and City Manager (but, curiously, not the Director or
Assistant Directors of Public Works), I have taken the liberty of CCing
my response to my City Council members.

David Merriman
Yes, the shithead actually CCed his email to me to the individuals mentioned, and yes, I actually included my City Council reps in MY reply, which I sent after business hours.

We'll see what kind of response(s) I get tomorrow...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ha! Good luck!

Oh, and I think you should post pics of Montana. Yes, I know. I have to request things like this all the time. I LURVE seeing where other people live- NOT your house- the area.

That is all.