GIS and the Public Records Law

Learn about how the Massachusetts Public Records Law treats computer files (no matter what format and including GIS data files), just like any other public record.


Unless the files are subject to one of the public records law exemption, they must be provided to the person or organization making the request. The time period allowed for in responding to such requests and the financial charges allowed in providing copies of data files are the same as for other kinds of public records. As with other public records requests, no explanation of the intended use for GIS data needs to accompany the request.

What is a public record?

The Secretary of the Commonweatlh's website has a section devoted to the Division of Public Records, where you can find a document called "A Guide to the Public Records Law" as well as some other related documents and links.

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Overview of the public records law and GIS

This presentation prepared by Neil MacGaffey at MassGIS provides a short overview of the essential requirements and provisions, including specific exemptions, of the public records law as it pertains to GIS data; many of the slides reference specific pages in the document mentioned above "A Guide to the Public Records Law".

Key Provision

“Every record made or received by a government entity is presumed to be a public record, unless it is subject to an exemption.”  
and “The custodian has the burden of claiming an exemption and showing why it applies” (page 1 of guide)

Does the public records law apply to computer records?

“Yes. The term ‘public records’ is defined by statute to include all documentary materials or data, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by any officer or employee of any municipality or agency in the Commonwealth.” (page 3 of guide)

Do requests have to be in writing?

No.  However, to appeal a request to which the record custodian has not responded, your original request has to have been in writing. AND "The custodian’s written response, made within ten days of the request, must be either an offer to provide the requested materials or a written denial” (page 2 of guide)

How much may a custodian charge for copies of public records?

“Unless specifically addressed by statute, a custodian may charge…the actual cost incurred …for records not susceptible to ordinary means of reproduction, such as computer records, or over-sized documents”AND “The charge for this process must be the prorated hourly wage of the lowest paid employee capable of performing the task.” (page 2 of guide)

Do I have to tell the custodian what I plan to do with the records once he provides me with copies?

“No. A custodian cannot ask a requestor why he or she wants specific records or what he or she plans to do with the records once received.”  (page 3 of guide)

May the City charge a fee for data which is commensurate with the City’s GIS development costs? 

“Government’s ability to collect, compile, maintain and disseminate public information is growing exponentially because of the computer and development of complex information systems such as GIS.  The temptation for public officials to increase revenue by sale of valuable information, such as that contained in a GIS database, is understandable.  However, the premise behind the Public Records Law, and other open government laws on the federal and state level, is that the public has an absolute right to access public information held by the government. The public should not be required to pay a premium for access to information which it has already paid to create and maintain through taxes. I recognize that, through the Public Records Law, a commercial enterprise can obtain GIS data at a nominal cost and can then sell that information at a considerable markup. However, that fact does not justify assessing a fee for those records in excess of those permitted under the Public Records Law” (From letter written in 1996 by then Acting Supervisor of Public Records Mary E. Schwind to Newton’s City Solicitor)

Exemptions relevant to GIS

(a) Statutory – exempt by statute, (n) Facility drawings, blue prints, plans, policies, drawings, etc. relevant to public safety, (o) Judicial/Law Enforcement Personnel – home contact information of personnel and their families.(This discussion starts on page 7 of the guide)

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Letter from public records custodian on GIS

In 1996, Mary E. Schwind, then Acting Supervisor of Public Records, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, wrote a letter to Daniel M. Funk, City Solicitor for the City of Newton. In this letter, Ms. Schwind responds to some specific questions concerning interpretation of public records law as it pertains to GIS databases.

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