‘Ransom’ demand pays for free maps

USGS policies made biker think creatively about getting maps

Two years ago, a mountain biker, frustrated because he could not find free, official topographic maps online, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Geological Survey. After USGS denied the request several times, the cyclist — Jared Benedict — decided to raise enough money to centralize the government’s topographic maps online for free.

USGS had told Benedict that he could buy the maps he needed from the agency, so he did. He purchased a hard drive containing more than 56,000 digital topographic maps from a USGS business partner and used his Web site to ask donors for a $1,600 “ransom” to cover the expense.

“Donate or purchase maps on DVD to meet the ransom demand,” Benedict urged readers of his Web site. “Once the $1,600 ransom is met, all maps will be handed over to the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive will make every map available for free download forever!”

The Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization that offers access to historical collections in digital format, will eventually offer free public access to the maps.

Benedict, a systems administrator in the information technology department at Dartmouth College, said he posted the ransom note the night of Aug. 27 and raised slightly more than he had asked — $1,700 within 24 hours.

The digital topographic maps show physical features such as mountains and rivers, which is useful for hikers, students researching land change or businesses planning expansions. The maps are TIFFs with metadata files that enable geographic information system applications to use them.

USGS spokeswoman Denver Makle said the agency neither supports nor objects to Benedict’s efforts. Citizens can buy topographic maps through the online USGS store for a small charge that covers the cost of materials, labor, shipping and handling, he added. The agency does not make a profit from its map sales, he said.

In addition, most topographic maps are available for download at the USGS Seamless Server at seamless.usgs.gov.

“The database is relatively new and is a work in progress,” Makle said. “There are still some areas of the Seamless Server that we are continuing to develop.”

Benedict said he does not believe USGS is trying to block the public from accessing digital maps, but the agency’s policies and procedures don’t make them easy to get.

“I just wasn’t able to find the right human at the USGS that was willing to help me,” he said. “I grew frustrated and felt that my energy would be better spent by purchasing the maps and recouping my costs, rather than spending time wading through layers of bureaucracy in order to find a USGS employee that actually had the authority and willingness to provide me with the data I was looking for.”

The Internet Archive is committed to helping Benedict complete his project.

“We will make these files available to others to build applications on top of” and at no cost, said Brewster Kahle, the Internet Archive’s co-founder.

Cyclist braked at paying for maps

Jared Benedict’s quest to make digital topographic maps freely available began two years ago. Benedict, a mountain biker, had asked the U.S. Geological Survey for digital maps of the Marlboro, Vt., area, where he lives. First he got no response, and then an official told him the agency was not interested in helping him download free maps.

That started his quest.

“I submitted a Freedom of Information [Act] request, asking for one of these digital maps to just see what would happen, and that came back denied,” he said. The denial included a note saying he could buy the maps from the agency.

Earlier this year, he sent a second FOIA request.

“They wrote back and said, ‘We have the right to charge for this data,’” he said. So he bought it, and set out to make it freely available.


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