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Data accessibility case in the US

The Board of Selectmen in Greenwich, voted unanimously yesterday to appeal a judge’s order that the town give citizens access to aerial photographs and digital maps contained in the town’s geographic information system. Town officials have tried to exempt the database from public records laws, arguing that detailed information about Greenwich’s buildings, roads, public safety facilities, schools and celebrities’ homes could undermine the town’s security and violate residents’ privacy.

But state authorities have twice rejected that argument. In November 2002, the state Freedom of Information Com-mission ordered Greenwich to make the materials available to the public. State Superior Court Judge Howard Owens Jr. upheld that decision in a Dec. 30 ruling, dismissing the town’s appeal.

But after meeting yesterday morning in executive session with Town Attorney John Wetmore, the Board of Selectmen decided to file another appeal in the case. “We feel that we have grounds to go forward,” Selectman Peter Crumbine said. “We would not do so unless we thought there was a reasonable chance of success.”

Neither Crumbine nor First Selectman Jim Lash would discuss the specific grounds for appeal. Wetmore did not return a phone call seeking comment. Lash said the appeal would be filed within 20 days of Owens’ decision, as required by state law.

The geographic information system database was developed in 1997, at a cost of $3 million, to aid town planners, assessors and public safety officers in their work. Individual photos and maps from the database are available to the public for a fee.

Greenwich resident Stephen Whitaker, however, filed a grievance with the Freedom of Information Commission after the town denied his request for an electronic copy of GIS data. Whitaker, a computer technician, has said that he hopes to make the information available for civic and commercial uses, such as taxi routing and mapping out safe routes to school for children.

Informed of the selectmen’s decision yesterday, Whitaker said he was “annoyed” but not surprised.

“Both of the first selectmen made clear that their game was to stall as long as possible,” he said, referring to Lash and his predecessor, Democrat Richard Bergstresser. “If they’ll do it for computer documents, they’ll probably do it with other sensitive documents.”

In his decision, Owens said the town had provided “no specific evidence” that showed how releasing GIS data would jeopardize public safety.

But Lash said yesterday that town officials have legitimate safety concerns about releasing the data. There is a clear distinction between making the documents available on paper and posting them on the Internet — whether it is the town’s Web site or Whitaker’s Web site, he said.

“It’s one thing to say the information is available, one piece at a time, face-to-face, across a desk,” Lash said. “It’s another thing to say that powerful search techniques can be used anonymously.”