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Jarman, Alan --- "Introducing Spatial Information Systems Into Local-Level Government: Some Priorities, Problems and Puzzles Concerning Organisational Innovation" [1995] JlLawInfoSci 15; (1995) 6(2) Journal of Law, Information and Science 208

Introducing Spatial Information Systems Into Local-Level Government: Some priorities, problems and puzzles concerning organisational innovation

A. M. G. JARMAN[*]


In this article the author examines some of the socio-legal developments associated with the use of technology within local councils. In particular the author examines the use of spatial information systems in the delivery of local government services and some of the legal policy implications that may flow from this development.


A new era is now emerging in Australian local government planning, both strategic and operational (Jones, 1989). Today, high technology is firmly established as an important factor in local government service delivery ranging from the functions of land planning to social services (Newton, Zwart and Cavill, 1992). A wide range of new computer-based applications are being developed by council professional staff throughout Australia. These planning techniques will change dramatically the policy making and administrative roles of staff and councillors. Spatial information systems constitute the technological "leading-edge" in this regard (Graham, 1993).

For the first time in Australia's history larger, more service-sensitive local authorities are establishing new levels of capability for unprecedented population dispersion and growth. Local council areas of land control are now being populated by nearly 250,000 people of all types of social, economic and cultural background. This new social challenge requires the development of imaginative planning and service delivery provision in communities surrounding Australia's continually expanding urban areas (Minnery, 1992).

Local councils (LCs) are becoming increasingly more sensitive to these political pressures for large-scale service provision. New planning techniques are continually requiring unique software applications to cope with council's development planning role (Stark, 1991). Computing and communications of all types, including satellite information, are emerging to answer the need for more professional council policy making and administration.

This paper will be narrowly focused both spatially and technologically. Specifically, the topic of local-level spatial information systems (SISs) will present a relatively new aspect of professional activity (Ball & Babbage, 1989; Ventura, 1995). Further, the relationship of new technological innovation to socio-legal change will be studied and analysed albeit at a basic anecdotal level of study. Local government is just beginning to grapple with these new policy issues thus rendering definitive assertions impossible.

The spatial content of the study is specifically focused. The southern region of the New South Wales (NSW) coast located south of suburban Sydney will be used as the basis of local-level data. As the sub-title states, this region will constitute the data source of "priorities, problems and puzzles" affecting the larger LCs especially Wollongong and Shoalhaven (Nowra) cities. This region represents one of the fastest-growing mixed development areas in the nation: heavy industry, mining, fishing, forestry, intensive agriculture, urbanism, hobby farming and tourism growth can all be witnessed year-by-year. Furthermore, these two LCs already posses operational geographic information systems (GISs) but each is still undergoing development.

Local-Level Technological Change: Some Introductory Comments

Until now, the introduction of technological change into Australian Local Councils has received little academic attention. However, as the potential for technological change accelerates, the many diffuse aspects of such learning-based development must of necessity render these debates even more intellectually "anarchic"; which of course can add to the excitement of the debate itself (Leonard-Barton, 1990). The sub-title of this article implies that its concern is with the enunciation of a research prospectus regarding the potential for technological change into local-level organisations. Strictly speaking, technological change has been occurring in most local authorities for many years (Jarman, 1984). To be more specific, my concern with technological change is not with the simple routinisation of conventional administrative tasks. The specific emphasis is more directed toward the software potential provided for planners. Therefore, I do not propose to list the purchase, recent or otherwise, of hardware by various local authorities throughout Australia, indeed this topic requires up-dating (see Newton and Taylor, 1986).

Therefore, my research prospectus is concerned concomitantly with relating spatial planning and software engineering after the user needs and demands have been considered and determined so as to enhance the cost-effectiveness of their intended specific application. The software development potential of this situation is therefore dependent upon three factors which will constitute the main theme of this article:

1. What range of functions do Local Governments perform and how are the new technologies affecting professional activity?

2. What potential range of software planning systems may exist now and in the medium-term future?


3. In which LCs are some of these software planning applications being developed and what socio-legal problems are being encountered as they seek to innovate?

1. The Functions-Technology Relationship in a Typical Local Authority

The functions of local government within Australia are not legally uniform. Each State has prescribed its own Local Government Act which also contains many additional Regulations. In some states, by-laws are enacted by individual Councils and each State Government (in practice) maintains a differing degree of actual compliance control over the issuance of such local legislation. In general terms, the degree of state compliance control varies.

It would be incorrect to presume that individual councils, on some occasions, do not operate at the edges and "grey areas" of this sanctioned legislation and its judicial interpretation by the State courts. For the purpose of this article this point need not be considered in detail. More specifically, the introduction of technological capital equipment is not a matter of much concern to the respective State Local Government departments. However, the Industrial Courts concerned with employment conditions and salaries, etc. do consider such matters from time to time – but more of this matter below.

The point at issue here is the relationship between these putatively legitimate local-level functions and the technologies that have been developed by administrators in the pursuit of their legitimate council duties (see Table 1 below). Because of the multitude of functional-departmental relationships, most States (and all of their Grants Commissions) now require that the National Accounting Standards classifications be used as a uniform system of financial reporting. Despite this seeming "unification", it is a fact that the unique programming demands of financial accounting software do create diverse types of property data base files which impact on GIS design. Such diversity is commonly a factor of the specific vendor's software system but this system must comply with the financial regulations in each State.

Table 1 General Local Council Classifications (Expenditure only)

1. General Administration

2. Public Safety, Law Order

3. Education

4. Health

5. Welfare

6. Housing

7. Community Amenities

8. Recreation and Culture

9. Economic Services

10. Unclassified (including debt servicing)

Source: Adapted from Jones, 1989:63.

2. Technological Development In Local Government

Under normal administrative circumstances, the three key general functions of General Administration, Engineering and Health Surveying are historically well established within most LCs. In conventional administrative situations however, the main departmental professional officers also relate in many different functional ways to the officers providing the more socially oriented services to the community, for example, civic centre complexes, libraries, sports and recreation facilities, parks and gardens, meals-on-wheels, child care and other such services. On occasion, resource allocation disputes can affect actual working relationships especially when new and perhaps expensive information systems are being introduced into council.

On the other hand, newly-approved high technology purchases are rarely a matter of political concern in most councils. The conventional view that new technologies readily enhance public sector productivity is rarely challenged, even in Labour Party controlled LCs. Naturally, the Municipal Officers' Association (MOA), the Municipal Employees' Union (MEU) and the Australian Workers' Union (AWU) are less sanguine in this regard. However, little industrial action has followed the introduction of office and outdoor-use technologies in Australian municipalities. In general, the introduction of new computer-based technology has been introduced with little acrimony.

Today, many councils are considering the accelerated introduction of even more sophisticated equipment but it should be noted that an imbalance exists. The vast excess of hardware supply over software demand is readily witnessed by general administrators, engineers, town planners, health surveyors, librarians, social workers, treasurers and other planners alike. Most professional conferences pay homage to the potential applications of the new-hardware continually entering the expanding marketplace. On the other hand, the "gaps" in software development are well-known and deserve further study.

3. Software Innovation In Selected Australian Local Authorities

Until recently, the development of software technologies in Australian local government has been narrowly conceived. The vast majority of computer applications have been at the instigation of the individual council's accountant, most of whom have limited operational computing knowledge. It should be noted that property file data reside, for the most part, in their departmental finance files.

Generally speaking the engineers, town planners, health surveyors and social welfare professionals have not utilised these new technologies to any considerable extent. Certainly, the more exotic computer applications available world-wide have (to date) been eschewed. In part, this general reluctance to computerise even routine functions is a result of the small populations being serviced. Also, the software design costs are often disproportionate to the benefits when compared to manual records' management. Also, in many instances, the accountants' demands for the computer are so time consuming that the other professionals are not always encouraged to use the available equipment.

Little empirical work has been published on this important topic in Australia. Anecdotal evidence however suggests that the geographic distribution of such use is quite erratic. When viewed nationally, the emerging impact of information technologies (IT) is locationally widespread and not always related to large-scale LC area, populations, budgets or even professional staffing ratios. Quite often, smaller councils are involved in innovative micro-computing applications and more recently software and networking experimentation (Newton, Zwart and Cavill, 1992).

In the short term however, one would expect that the office-located personnel would develop the applications' potential of the micro-computer much more quickly than the outside office and field staff. Many professional officers throughout Australia are aware of these new challenges and are learning the necessary skills to cope with these new and perhaps novel problems. As software development and systems' design have been gradually emerging for a decade in council planning systems, these software planning skills cut across many single departmental functions.

It is now necessary to focus the remainder of this article toward the conceptual and empirical study of a select few coastal spatial information systems (SISs). Locationally the cities (or municipalities) of Sutherland, Wollongong, Kiama, Shoalhaven, Eurobodalla and Bega will constitute the data base. Matters of discretion preclude any specific identification of information sources. Our final concern is to define more precisely the specific elements of the sub-title, "Priorities, Problems and Puzzles" from a socio-legal analytical perspective.

Spatial Information Systems (SISs): Some technological issues in a "turbulent" environment

During the past decade the development and use of spatial (geographic) information systems has grown significantly in Australia and elsewhere (Ventura, 1995). In "sub-national" spheres of government (that is local, regional and state) many different planning-related applications are in evidence; years of operational experience are now both technically manifest and work effectively. However, in the new "public entrepreneurial" era of government service provision (Donahue, 1989:84; Gore, 1994) many significant issues are being raised concerning operational efficiency (or productivity), technology transfer and the institutional issues accompanying such innovation.

These issues are neither trivial for the purpose of academic enquiry nor irrelevant to the continued technological development of local-level public sector agencies and their role as providers of direct services to an ever-demanding public. Today, the general tenets of public management require that senior executives need to balance more effectively the two sides of the equation: "demand" schedules which are increasingly revenue-driven (as distinct from central budget subvention) and "supply" schedules which are both technologically "appropriate" and cost-sensitive (in part to the new revenue-dependence based on market performance).

In summary, such "public entrepreneurship" (Schneider and Teske, 1992) requires new skills to be learnt in many different sub-national office settings (Leonard-Barton, 1990). The study of these increasingly important issues of public management prompts the following set of questions thought to be relevant to the topic being considered:


1. What is a "spatial" information system(s) (SISs) and how (at present) is it being related (in Australia) to local-level strategic planning and management?

2. What is the role of "sub-national" spheres of government in using and selling such data/information to others in government and the private sector (including the individual customer)?

3. Is high-technology systems' development a realistic agenda issue for local authorities (LAs) in Australia?

4. How does the Australian experience relate to other countries?

5. Within local government and inter-governmental agencies, what are the most important emerging socio-legal issues?

This set of questions by no means exhausts the complicated nature of this topic as they will develop into the next century. The constant search by "managerialist" public managers to develop operational applications will compel both more "cost-effective" (the old requirement) and "revenue-sensitive" (the new demand) applications as the challenges multiply sometimes to levels of significant strategic complexity (Mitroff, 1988 esp. Ch. 8). In this context, this article is merely a working paper: it offers few practical solutions to the many novel problems already extant. On the other hand, it does attempt to gather some new data with regard to contemporary LC applications in Australia and indeed, at the end, will begin to define some of the socio-legal issues which might be pursued by others interested in such policy questions. Each question will now be discussed in order using the numbering shown in the list stated above.

1. What Is a Spatial Information System (in "sub-national" spheres of government)?

Conceptually, the legal relationship between "space" and "local" government is axiomatic. Unlike "central" government which implies national and international three-dimensional space, local government is geographically bounded and represents "area" as a legal entity. The conveyancing lawyer is familiar with this situation. The boundaries of local government space are therefore finite and specific, precisely defined relative to (at least two-dimensional) geographic criteria. In this context the term "spatial" information system implies a terrestrial system of co-ordinates where specific "points" of land are related to many other points. Conventional surveying techniques still dominate such mapping systems technologies (Macguire, Goodchild and Rhind, 1991).

The users of spatial information systems are however interested not only in two-dimensional spatial arrangement. "Space" also means, legally speaking, two other dimensions as well: the third dimension being the heights of hills, valleys, floodplains etc. whilst the fourth dimension considers the "quality" of such three-dimensional space, namely, the type of soils, the surface vegetation, water levels and flows, etc. When considered as all four dimensions, "space" in this context is not only a means of specifying legally-definable quantitative measurement (of all four dimensions) but also represents an economic asset (which provides any individual LC with its qualitative criteria of resource development).

This introduction to spatial systems, however terse, is nevertheless only a preliminary for what is of even greater interest to the local government actors. For such people, whether they be elected councillors or professional staff, the key issue is how much of a "value-added" nature can be derived from this geographically land-bounded resource asset? This is not a trivial question when it is recognised that most urban LCs derive somewhere between 40 to 60 per cent of their total revenue from "unimproved capital value" (UCV) land rates derived from the assessed value of that land determined by the state Valuer-General's Department. Even today, most rural councils remain highly dependent on land rates. This land-value is still the basic unit of conventional value-measurement and does not include loans, grants, fees and charges.

A narrower meaning of spatial information systems is also necessary. Viewed technically, we might want to regard such an information system as a "geographic" IS or GIS (an SIS will involve the use of space-derived data); an operational system which is usually designed for advanced computing application. A GIS is commonly an artefact of computer-based analysis (Macquire, Goodchild & Rhind, 1991). As such, its' constituent "attributes" (or data layers) are arbitrarily determined within any individual LC for either professional data/information retrieval or more recently for customer sales-for-service, perhaps at the council's "front desk".

Technically, one operational definition of a GIS has been stated as follows:

The essential feature of a GIS is the sophisticated computer hardware and software to collate, store, manipulate and process (this) geographic data. A GIS thus consists of:

(1) An extensive data base of geographic information involving both positional data about land and/or hydrographic features as well as descriptive/non-locational data about these features; and

(2) Suites of programs or applications which enable the data to be input, accessed, manipulated, analysed and reported.

The output might be in textual and/or graphic form (i.e. reports or maps, charts, diagrams, etc.) (Ball & Babbage, 1989:2).

Without entering into the software/mathematical aspects of programmed GIS design, it should be obvious that the design of such systems is rarely simple. Many different software packages exist (both proprietary to the vendor and off-the-shelf) whilst some smaller LCs are using MS-DOS microcomputer programs some of which they design as functional "macros".

Operationally, two main factors seem to influence the introduction of GISs to any LC: first, the individual source of the initial departmental request to purchase a GIS is never consistent LC by LC and, second, LC professional staff seem to be variable risk-takers (or adverse) with little regard to the calculation of cost-effectiveness factors when related to the LC's actual resource base. This range of experience can be found across the sample south coast LCs listed above.

With regard to the first point, to date, four main separate departmental sources seek to initiate the introduction of a GIS/SIS (hereafter SIS) into their professionally-based operational systems. At the one extreme lies the generally risk-averse accountants who will frequently support the purchase of an SIS provided it is capable of being "integrated" with their finance data systems. In these terms, an integrated SIS is large enough in terms of computer capacity to process all of the accounting systems requirement as well as the potentially huge "number-crunching" needs of a topologically-structured SIS. This arrangement necessitates the design of the relational database system (RDBS) which allows the financial aspects of the SIS to be integrated with regard to its' spatial properties.

At the other extreme lies the "networkers" who see no need to integrate the system regarding its financial/geographic characteristics (Newton, Zwart and Cavill, 1992; Terplan, 1992). Commonly, both engineers and land-use ('strategic') planners have been most influential in effecting such systems' design. The engineers' concern is naturally with road networks, water supply, sewage disposal, storm-water run-off as well as other utilities' applications. Their data base requirements are uniquely demanding: they usually require mapping accuracy levels based on survey-accuracy (error-rates) which are of little interest to others in the LC. The time taken to implement successfully such an RDBS is prodigious especially with regard to the demanding data-entry digitising of the existing maps (some of dubious geographic accuracy). Many "ground-truthing" surveys are needed to satisfy the geographic accuracy required for such mapping. The legal implications of such conveyancing-related data should be both noted and identified as a topic for further academic research.

Thirdly, the land-use planner likewise can also initiate a unique set of demands for the SIS. The concern here is with the geo-physical basics of geographic land-space (as approximate boundaries), its various qualities (topography, soil features, vegetation, hydrology, etc.) and its administrative effectiveness in maintaining the development (zoning) and building approval tasks of the planning office. The need to update constantly such files is ever-demanding and again is legally constrained (Jarman, 1994). Both the engineers and planners are more likely to "go it alone" in the context of the overall LC's data requirements let alone its strategic planning capabilities. On the other hand, the more "environmentally sensitive" the professionals are, the more likely the engineers and planners' needs will overlap especially with regard to the recent State requirement of LC environmental reporting.

The fourth potential initiator of the SIS is the computer professional either within the treasury or as the deputy (town or shire) clerk or in the EDP corporate services' department. This source of initiation is the least likely to prevail in the bureaucratic politics of most LCs. However, the understandable instinct of such people to learn how to use (and perhaps programme) new Operating Systems such as UNIX and more recently Windows 95 is not to be regarded as trivial. In general terms, however, such interests are not regarded by the other professionals as 'applications' driven to warrant such inquiry and expenditure. In all, the conclusion regarding this section returns to Professor Allison's aphorism: "where you sit is where you stand". To date, the cost-effectiveness of the SIS systems now operating is at best vague – this issue leads to Question 2.

2. What is the role of the "sub-national" spheres of government in using and selling such data/information to others in government and the private sector?

Question 1 has largely concentrated on the "supply-side" of the spatial information system equation. The various professionals involved, when acting as technocrats, are able to supply many different 'attributes' SIS layers of data to colleagues, politicians qua councillors and others. In each case there is some sort of "price" which is more likely to be non-monetary than direct cost-related.

These prices as transfer costs can be politically divisive within the bureaucracy for three main reasons: the arbitrary nature of the monetary line-item-to-program budget subvention costing itself; second, the basis for calculating "on-costs" which might constitute 40-50 per cent over salary and thirdly, the even more vexed question of how to allocate (on a program basis) "overheads" where office rental may be calculated as an "opportunity-cost" rather than as an actual dollar figure. The recent introduction of accrual accounting procedures to local government has exacerbated this complexity as much of this costing is needed to calculate arbitrary "depreciation" allowances for council assets.

Second, public sales represent an administrative problem of a quite different order. Much of the planning data provided to the public, especially concerning the issue of future land-use, raises important legal issues. Common-law cases already exist with regard to development planning to the point where the need for professional indemnity insurance is both necessary and costly. Further, as mentioned above, the use of new technologies designed to replace costly surveying techniques means that the legal aspects of spatial accuracy/error levels deserves further attention. Again, conveyancing issues can be raised in this regard.

Finally, the more recently-raised issue of inter-governmental "value-adding" presents genuine dilemmas to all key players. Two issues dominate the agenda in this regard. First, the question as to who legally "owns" the data is contentious. On the one hand, data acquired at a price by the LC (about $2 per land "parcel") from state-controlled "lands" departments is rarely 100 per cent accurate (and indeed might be 25 per cent inaccurate – a high error rate level for digital data). On the other hand, the LC must correct such inaccurate prime data for its own unique computer use and in so doing has "added value". Indeed, some professionals argue that the state (and perhaps Commonwealth) lands' departments' data in this context is, comprehensively speaking, of little immediate "value-added" potential to them at local level.

To date, state governments have rejected this LC protestation. They argue that even data containing relatively low error rate levels is nevertheless the only cost-effective external source of digital data for any individual LC. As matters stand, LCs sometimes reluctantly accept that they have little choice if they want to design and utilise SISs-suited to their own applications' purpose. Legally, the situation remains unresolved. Indeed, the issue can become even more complex when it is remembered that some of the extant State-level digital data is derived directly from Commonwealth agency geographic data files (especially AUSLIG).

The role of the Commonwealth government in terms of the issues raised remains as yet understated and unresolved. Two main reasons for such ambiguity obtain. First, with regard to the original processing of land use-use data, much of the mapping compiled today is derived from international satellite sources of remotely-sensed data. LANDSAT (owned by EOSAT, USA and SPOT owned by SPOTIMAGE, France) provide such digital data. The down-linked data is collected at one point in Australia – the Alice Springs receiving station – located so as to optimise the transmitting signals from the polar-orbiting satellites. Second, once collected and then stored and analysed in Canberra, the digitised but relatively unprocessed data is then sold under licence to the state lands' authorities. Again, both copyright and pricing policy issues are of concern.

More significant to the local-level practitioners is the issue of establishing software value-adding so as to market the SIS "product" to real estate agencies, other governmental organisations and even international buyers (Charalambides, 1988). The issue of copyright and intellectual property must be resolved in this regard: many LCs are anxious to become entrepreneurial in this context of market-driven service provision. There is little doubt that such a market exists.

Finally, the individual LC is virtually a bystander with regard to the solution to many of these legal issues. Dilemmas abound. On the one hand, LCs are exhorted by state authorities to become "more entrepreneurial" while at the same time other state and regional agencies (also seeking to become more effective revenue-earners) are restricting the limits of the value-added markets which could (potentially) accrue to the LCs. This competitive situation generally does not constitute a legally-specific "level playing field". As usual, this situation will vary nation-wide; what might happen in NSW may be quite different from Victoria. In the meantime, the individual LCs are not holding back with the purchase of either up-graded or entirely new SISs. More on this point below.

3. Is high-technology systems' development a realistic agenda issue for Australian local authorities?

Overall, the state and national decision makers rarely consult the LCs in policy terms concerning long-term strategy planning (as distinct from operational detail). The second aspect of this issue concerns the changing demographic/scale of operations element of future LC growth in particular in the suburban and coastal zones of the major cities. In this context, the potential use of high-level technology (both terrestrial and space-based) is already apparent even though the policy impacts remain variable. Further, if specific applications are considered which include rural area LCs, then the list of councils is significantly extended. In the circumstance, at least four major types of applications' software could be enhanced:

3.1 SISs for use in environmental planning (Wohlers, 1981).

3.2 Expert Systems used to enhance the planning of road network maintenance, site selection analysis, transport planning (eg. during emergencies), contract management, etc. (Kim, Wiggins & Wright, 1990; Meyer & Curley, 1991).

3.3 On-line data processing using terrestrial systems for department performance monitoring, library systems data transfers, electronic mail, voter surveying, the development of the electronic "cottage" (Rockart and Short, 1989; Cragg and Finlay, 1991).

3.4 Space Technology for use in mapping (global positioning systems – GPS or NAVSTAR), L-band mobile communications (esp. during emergencies (Jarman, 1992)), rural eduction and management training and other as yet possible applications.

Such agency/departmental applications need considerable Research and Development (R and D) as little of a "local" level nature has been done in this regard. The scale issue is important here. Some of the outer urban LCs are now inhabited by more than 250,000 people. Such implicit economies of scale can allow LCs to employ specialist professionals who could be used to develop such applications and indeed, in some cases, collaborate with nearby rural shires. The commercial potential for such related software development is only beginning to be tapped. Already, some of these smaller (and necessarily "poorer" LCs) are experimenting with imaginative PC-based practical SIS applications. There is little public fanfare accompanying these efforts but the technical potential for innovation is promising.

Finally, when one studies the SIS R & D development needs with regard to the industrial "partnership" potential of multinational companies (such as Fijitsu, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, etc.), the local-level role of potential global technology transfer "networks" also deserves further study. This issue can raise legal issues especially concerning the terms of the often implicit "counter-trade" aspects of informed technology transfer arrangements.

4. How does Australian experience relate to other countries?

There can be little doubt that with regard to contemporary SIS design and computer acquisition these professionals are truly eclectic. A short list of SIS vendors would show that the range of companies involved is decidedly multi-national whilst the intra-national range of their marketing reach is impressive. The study of multi-LC "user groups" as technology transfer networks again deserves detailed research.

With regard to the coastal/regional data used here, the dominance of the US Genasys/Genamap combination is pronounced. Wollongong, Shellharbour, Kiama and Eurobodalla all use the Genamap GIS software. Shoalhaven, long a computing exception in local government, is about to install a new Sun-based computing system whereas Bega Municipality is trialing several MS-DOS mapping systems notably Mapinfo.

Nationally among conventional LC computer users, it is possible to define an even more extensive array of extant "local/regional" networks: for instance the IBM group in Western Australia, the Nixdorf group in South Australia, many Hewlett-Packard users in both Victoria and southern New South Wales plus the Fijitsu Mid-State (ICL) group in rural New South Wales and Queensland. This list constitutes a rich mix of overseas hardware suppliers who, for the most part, dominate the technical and procurement advice given to LCs professionals concerning the operating systems for each (which are normally proprietorial). Unix-based and other "open systems" are just beginning to break into this situation. To generalise, at the moment the national mix of mapping systems either being used or trialed is impressive if confusing for those seeking "to standardise" such usage – a rare prospect in local government anywhere.

Locally, individual LCs are often eager to become beta- "test sites" and so gain the benefit of both R and D status as well as the additional advantage of being first with the latest innovations in software application (eg. Ipswich). This R and D role however raises some important techno-legal problems for the local authorities. Two issues deserve further study. First, if any one LC is used by a multinational as a "beta" site, what is to prevent the private company from using genuinely innovative ideas thought out by the LC's staff in other institutions outside local government? Second, and more problematic, what if the LC staff do understand the commercial implications of their own inventiveness? Can they be protected by copyright laws when it is the vendor's software being used in the first instance? Even worse, as happened in one notable case, what happens if the vendor decides to exit a potentially expensive piece of software development when the operational flaws in their original programme becomes understood fully by the LC R and D staff?

This last example appears not to be a unique event. Some companies from overseas have lost market share as the result of lacking innovative software applications' skills. This is still true where some vendors have become too specialised especially with regard to financial management software provision. On the other hand, as with computing generally, "open systems" networks are being increasingly favoured by all professionals (including accountants). At once, this trend favours the software suppliers who can then convince LC staff that their SIS "mapping" system can link into the finance property "text"-based system and so provide "spatial" data which will be inter-departmentally transferable. The output of Windows 95 should accelerate this trend to a significant degree.

As such local-level applications become more numerous, the new trends in software systems' development will compel more interest in the sense that the present generation of proprietorial-based systems will need to meet the challenge of "open" systems network architectures. This trend is already well advanced operationally (and has definite consequences for the hardware suppliers). No doubt, proprietorial systems will continue to exist, especially where there are large-scale "unified" systems which may be beyond the systems' capability of UNIX and Windows (either 95 or NT). However, one (Mid-State) LC system installed in urban Sydney is populated by 90,000 people and shows that a networked UNIX system is capable of being used by relatively large-scale, stable urban councils.

Finally, it must be presumed that LCs are, for the most part, likely to remain dependent upon the vendors for advice about OS technical matters, up-dates and software upgrades (including training). However, as we have recently seen at Townsville, Penrith, Sutherland, Holroyd and elsewhere, some are prepared to resist this conservatism and innovate within a growing network of new systems' suppliers. As SIS operational applications become more widespread I believe this trend will continue.

5. Within Local Government and Inter-Governmental, What are the Most Important Emerging Socio-Legal Issues?

It is often stated, as cliche, that local government is the sphere of politics and administration "closest to the people". For most citizens this remains true: for matters of land definition, zoning approvals, building amendments, public health and other vital property and social services. It is my contention that as SISs are integrated sporadically into the data/information systems of LCs that this cliche will take on new meaning. The direct challenge to the legal profession is significant, more as a degree of quality than quantity.

Consider the specifics of some of the legally-related challenges implicitly presented within the narrative stated above:

5.1 Council Functions and Professionalism: Conveyancing and land/environment constitute a large business base for lawyers. This market will inevitably expand. But as LC functions expand from property-based to social services will the role of the courts diminish relative to the growth of alternate forms of dispute mediation?

5.2 Land data/Information Management: Future land survey data gathering will be increasingly assembled using space-based data rather than terrestrial sources of measurement. In these circumstances the geographic accuracy (ie. error-rate) levels could become a matter of legal dispute.

5.3 Land-Data Transmission: Many sources of external demand exist today for LC data. Technically, this is generally an easy problem to solve. It could, however, become a legal issue of significance. For example:

The council's "value-adding" to data, while difficult to cost accurately, must be priced on a fee-for-service basis. Does such pricing constitute a local monopoly and, if so, do other governmental agencies have the right to control such prices?

Second, what appeal mechanisms exist for consumers who may resist "monopoly-rights" pricing in principle or may object on the grounds of social equity?

Third, who within council determines the security/privacy limits of publicly-available data?

Finally, as inter-governmental electronic networking increases in usage, to what extent do "super-ordinate" spheres of government, especially States, possess constitutional/administrative limits to intra and international exchanges of such data?

5.4 Commercialisation Issues: Some of the Local-State issues of contention just mentioned may well be limited by the need for LCs to view their respective data-bases a "semi-commercial" resource/revenue-earning assets. Why not? Indeed, in general policy terms, the State Government both preach and practice such endeavour.

Again the issue of "monopoly-rights" emerges as one of contention. In this instance, as stated above, the constitutional power is formally sacrosanct. But actual practice differs: it can push and probe at the limits of state 'constitutionality'.

One example: if the City of Shoalhaven were to be invited to sell specific data relevant to the Commonwealth Government regarding local flora-fauna locations (say to CEPA), could the NSW EPA forbid such a transfer/sale because they did not want the CEPA to know (hypothetically) that a certain plant or animal species was experiencing decline in local population levels?

In summary, these items do not necessarily constitute an exhaustive or definitive list of legal issues. However, in aggregation they might constitute a 'first approximation' in setting a preliminary agenda. Certainly, the topic is unlikely to recede as an issue of legal education and/or professional development.


The technological changes capable of being developed within the field of truly "smart" spatial information systems are only just beginning to be recognised, especially when one considers the potential of space-related local-level applications in this regard. The next generation of computer chips (such as Intel's 2000), OS's development, communications' design and particularly "image processing" architectures provide ample evidence to support this contention (Morton, 1991).

However, all need to be circumspect about the prospects for over-selling "technocracy". The above paragraph is only one version of the "supply-side" syndrome whereby much contemporary technology is simply not "cost effective" enough for the user, even though it can technically perform many useful tasks. IT today still suffers from this shortcoming (Terplan, 1992).

And finally, what of the LC "public entrepreneur" in this context? On the one hand, the technologies associated with proven operational performance enhancement exist – but for the most part they are often "sitting on the shelf". They might be too expensive, or not "user-friendly" enough, or even "too innovative" to introduce today. The R and D task in this context remains formidable and challenging.

On the other hand, Australian LCs and their professional staff have a proven record of practical innovation (Wettenhall, 1988). Individual people throughout the country (sometimes located in the least likely places) have shown for decades an ability to both experiment and achieve useful "breakthroughs" (including software design applications). Yet much of this creative work remains unknown except to a few local people and perhaps others in the professional 'network'. In this context the need is for more effective "technology transfer". Perhaps the enhancement of the Internet will accelerate the necessary diffusion of some very good, practical ideas.

But the entrepreneur will usually want more – revenues should become available to the LC (even at individual-level of copyright protection) as a result of such endeavour. It is this aspect of the spatial information system "value-chain" about which the author remains most pessimistic. "The chain", as we have seen, can be an inter-agency "nightmare" – many different players, all with different "stakes", who will likely seek to skew "the game" to their own institutional benefit. This, of course, is one working description of "democracy in action". At the other end of the scale is the ultimate-end consumer, "the public". In the middle, many techno-legal remain to be defined let alone resolved.

In conclusion, it is easy to say that many ambiguities exist. These are not so much technical as "behavioural". In this context, therefore, it is time for applications'-related demand to become more influential over supply. Many, many senior LC personnel are ready to rise to these challenges: but the complicated nature of the "value-added" chain exists and will probably persist. In this context, SISs represent another example of public enterprise at its most challenging.

For the legal profession, in particular, the study of these contemporary issues in local-level SISs' development may actually constitute an excellent learning "test site" for perhaps broader-based social issues' analysis as well as the more complicated "constitutional-commercial" issues discussed above. Some of these tentative ideas and tacit recommendations might inspire professional lawyers to advance and enhance the topic and its' inevitable debates.


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[*] Faculty of Management, University of Canberra

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