A judge has ordered Santa Clara County to make public at minimal cost its digital “basemap” that shows parcel boundaries, assessor parcel data and other information. The county wanted to charge tens of thousands of dollars for the information, which would have limited access to just a small number of purchasers with deep pockets.

The suit that forced the county to release its “Geographic Information System” or GIS data was filed by the California First Amendment Coalition, which said in a press release that the information will enable journalists to do reporting that would not otherwise be possible:

    or example, reporters and bloggers could write stories that assess whether poor neighborhoods are being shortchanged for road repairs. Data on crime statistics, census information, political party affiliations, campaign contributions, environmental hazards and school test score results could be analyzed to spot trends and to test the validity of government policy assumptions and prescriptions.

Peter Scheer, the First Amendment coalition’s executive director (pictured), said the ruling opens up databases created with tax funds:

    “This landmark decision vindicates our view that government agencies may not claim exclusive control over records that are created with tax dollars … While we encourage agencies to create databases and adapt public records to new technologies, the resulting applications cannot be run as monopoly businesses,” Scheer said.

Ironically, the Santa Clara County judge who decided the case is James Kleinberg (pictured), who ruled in 2005 that California’s shield law for journalists didn’t apply to bloggers who were writing about products being developed by Apple. Last year, an appeals court reversed Kleinberg, saying bloggers and Web masters are entitled to the same First Amendment protections from having to divulge confidential sources as other journalists. [AP coverage]

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