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March 23, 2006

The Weekly Wrap

Map Away
Humboldt County frees its geographic data

9 Questions for Wayne Stark

The Weekly Wrap

photo of California Newspaper Publisher Association's annual Better Newspaper Contest judging sessionsJUDGMENTAL: Although it's on Leisure Lane, the Radisson Hotel in Sacramento is just a frenetic microcosm of networking and other competitive endeavors, a bulging offshoot of the office.

Take last Thursday, for instance, when a row of rooms teemed with well-coiffed, ably suited men and women attending the Accredited Farm Insurance Specialists conference. They sweated over exams -- a requirement to get credit from the seminar -- and pushed product. Outside their rooms, table after table declared each vendor's supreme performance in the arena of farm insurance. "Equine mortality: including accident, injury, sickness, disease," offered one brochure. "$25,000 for loss or damage to outdoor trees," offered another aimed at winery clients. "Swine confinement insurance," said a blue brochure with a photo of cute pigs crammed together face-to-buttocks. Attendees wandered at will, milling about the hallway gabbing and admiring each other's swag -- red, apple-shaped stress balls, fancy giant blue plastic paperclips bearing company logos, mugs, pens, T-shirts, hats.

At the end of the hall, where another group gathered, it was a different story. The folks in there were going about their business quite seriously, to be sure -- reading through stacks and stacks of newspapers that towered on their white-cloth tables like some sort of gray penance. But there was no swag. They didn't mingle much in the hallway. Some of them -- gasp -- had bad hair, and a few lacked a certain, oh, fashion sense. And when lunch was called they grudgingly left their toil to grab a plate of food, then hurried back to scarf it while they continued to read the papers.

This was one of the California Newspaper Publisher Association's annual Better Newspaper Contest judging sessions (above), in which writers, editors, artists and publishers from all over California came together to judge each others' work. About 250 newspapers entered the contest this year, with a total of 5,000 entries. At each table, two to three judges read through a stack of entries, culling the best based on specific criteria -- quality of writing, originality, organization, relevance, and so on. For each entry, each judge wrote comments -- flaming was banned, constructive criticism encouraged. The four best entries from each category were selected, and they will go on to a "blue ribbon" panel of judges, chosen from all over the country, who will decide the winners later this year.

It felt a bit like being in a rather long, collegial staff meeting peppered with comments like, "This one ... well, it started out great and then just stopped." Or, "Good topic, but does this person even use a brain when she writes?" (which was translated into something quippish on the comment sheet, like, "Nice idea. Perhaps needed more time to flesh it out. Try to set the scene.") For the tired topic with a warm-hearted delivery, one judge, from a Sacramento paper, kindly wrote: "The community probably really enjoyed this," or something to that effect. For the occasional shining star, comments were decisive: "Now here is a writer" or "You really did some vigorous reporting."

But why were there so few shining stars? The idea of the "Better Newspaper Contest" is to encourage better newspapers through peer review. Which is a good idea. And it's a useful session for the actual judges, and presumably for the writers who later read their comments. But does it work? Probably sometimes -- it's a hit and miss affair, with a myriad other variables determining a newspaper's quality. It just isn't as simple as insuring a horse, even if the horse can talk.

NO-SPEED INTERNET: It came Friday afternoon, and it didn't go away until sometime around noon Tuesday -- if, in fact, it had gone away for good. We're talking about the odd intermittent outage that plagued Humboldt County subscribers to Cox Cable's high-speed Internet service, the cause of much agony last week.

No one we could find was completely certain of what the trouble was, or when it was scheduled to be repaired -- least of all the poor souls who waited patiently for long stretches on the company's tech support line, only to be told that the problem was not with Cox but with themselves. Nevertheless, individuals and companies all around Humboldt County were plagued with the same problems: sporadic (or slow) access to e-mail and the web, an inability to upload files through FTP and a host of other net-related problems.

On Tuesday morning, a few hours before the problem seemed to have been solved, Carlton Nielsen of, a Eureka-based network consultant, was headed out to Ferndale to help a client get around the outage. "It has not been a fun couple of days," Nielsen said. "We've had some clients that have come back online this morning. Cox has said that it's a congested trunk that they're trying to get resolved. But it doesn't give me a whole lot of hope that it will happen. They won't give me an ETA."

Over in Arcata, the StreamGuys, a provider of online multimedia content with a national client base, the outages led to headaches and workarounds. "I don't know that it's gotten to the point where we have to send anyone home to work from their DSL," said Andy Jones, a technical services employee of the company," but I'm pretty sure that there's no problem there."

Jones said that the Cox outage had spurred the company to get moving on one of its back-burner plans -- to sign up with SBC for a high-speed data line as a back-up. "When there's only two choices, we need to use both in case either one goes down," he said. "The problems that we've experienced with Cox has led us to accelerate getting our DSL connection up as a failsafe."

MAGIC MUSHROOM BONBON BUST: What a long, strange trip it's been for the Humboldt County Drug Task Force. Last week, after a month-long investigation, authorities served Aaron Lee Struth, 25, of Arcata with a federal search warrant and arrested him for manufacturing little caramel candies spiked with psilocybin "magic" mushrooms and selling the treats to people in Utah.

Four to five pounds of mushrooms were seized from Struth's home on the 900 block of Grant Street in Arcata on March 15, along with digital scales, packaging materials, plastic candy molds, about 15 pieces of psychedelic candy wrapped in wax paper, hash oil and 25 pounds of marijuana. What appeared to be a hash-extraction laboratory was set-up in Struth's garage. Humboldt County Drug Task Force Agent Kym Thompson said Utah authorities notified her of Struth's activities, which were made known after a 21-year-old Orem resident sold six pieces of magic caramel to an undercover police officer. That arrest led to a dealer in Provo, Utah, which then led to Aaron Struth in Arcata.

Thompson said when Struth was arrested, he had just come home from the grocery store, where he purchased caramel candy supplies -- corn syrup, brown sugar, butter and milk. His candies, Thompson said, looked like any other caramel treat, but when examined closely "you can see the little particles of mushroom in it." She was uncertain if the sweets had much of a mushroom taste. Between Utah and Arcata, approximately $100,000 worth of the candies were confiscated. They reportedly sold for $25 a piece. Struth appeared before a federal magistrate Monday in Eureka. His case will be tried in Utah. Agent Thompson said there was no evidence that Struth was selling the candy locally.

SALAMANDER SUIT: On March 16, three conservation groups filed suit against the California departments of Forestry and Fish and Game after those agencies approved logging in an area inhabited by the Scott Bar salamander. The salamander lives in the Scott Bar region of Siskiyou Mountains, and was first described as a species distinct from the Siskiyou Mountains salamander in May 2005. Its range is limited, and it was listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act.

However, the groups -- Environmental Protection Information Center, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and Center for Biological Diversity -- claim that the California DFG has dismissed protections for the newly defined species, and that the Department of Forestry has amended four timber harvest plans to allow logging in the salamander's habitat. "Rather than heralding the discovery of a new species in California, the California Department of Forestry is rushing to wipe out the rare critters' habitat," said Joseph Vaile of KS Wild in a news release.

Neither the Scott Bar salamander nor Siskiyou Mountains salamander are listed under the federal ESA, but petitions for their listing were filed last June and an initial decision on that petition is expected sometime this April.

CORRECTION: Last week's cover story, "On Different Tracks," misidentified the sawmill located next to Eureka's Balloon Track. It is a Schmidbauer Lumber mill, not a Sierra Pacific Industries mill. In addition, an awkwardly worded phrase may have left readers confused about the date of Eureka's upcoming municipal elections. They will be held in November. The Journal regrets the errors.


Map Away
Humboldt County frees its geographic data


For years, professional geographers and planners in the Humboldt County Community Development Services Department and other local agencies have steadily increased the number of wonderful things they can do with maps.

Nowadays, anyone can go to the department's web site and download all sorts of interesting maps of the county, each of them with a different theme. One shows the ranges of various endangered and threatened species throughout the county. Another details the speed of population growth in each region. Others show the location of cell phone towers, types of vegetation, air pollution, public lands, agricultural preserves, school districts -- any number of useful and interesting topics.

The technology on which these maps are built is known as a "geographic information system" (GIS) and it allows easy comparison of all different types of data -- data that, before the age of the computer, existed only in tabular accountants' sheets in musty books stacked away in some dark corner of the Humboldt County Courthouse, if at all. GIS brings these numbers dancing to life, translated into three dimensions and full color in a way that their meaning becomes instantly apparent to the naked, untrained eye.

The county, like just about every other government agency in America, has gradually been taking this data out of the books and putting it into the computer -- long, laborious, expensive work. And up until now, if any private agency wanted to use the newly digitized data for a project of its own, it would have to pay a substantial fee for copies of the most important information -- $500 for the digital map of the county's parcels of land, up to $3600 for a comprehensive database detailing the ownership and value of each parcel.

That all changed last week. In response to a Public Records Act request filed by the Journal, the Community Development Services District has changed its policy. From now on, GIS data will be handed over to anyone who requests it, for a nominal fee.

Tom Hofweber, supervising planner for the Community Development Services Department, said that he was largely pleased that county staff members had made the determination that his department's GIS data would now be more widely available. He said that Community Development Services now hoped to distribute much of the data in question on the Internet.

"Our preference would be is that, if it is a public record, to make it as easy as possible for people to get," he said. "We'll post links to our data if possible"

What had changed? Last October, the California Attorney General's Office issued an opinion stating, in no uncertain terms, that counties could not charge exorbitant fees for GIS data -- that such data fell under the aegis of the California Public Records Act, and so must be made available for "the direct cost of duplication" -- in most cases, essentially the price of a blank CD. The attorney general's opinion was the result of a long-running battle between certain local agencies in California, which wanted to charge for their data as a way to recoup the costs of producing it, and a group of geographic and industry professionals led by the Open Data Consortium, a Berkeley-based non-profit group that advocates for free data access.

The Open Data Consortium's Bruce Jaffe, a GIS professional, said last week that Humboldt County has apparently become the second county in the state to take the attorney general opinion to heart and change its policies. Earlier in the month, he said, Los Angeles County also decided to change its data distribution policy.

Joffe, who is in the process of sending out letters to each of California's 58 counties in order to get an understanding of their current policies, said that his association's successful arguments to the attorney general were based on the fundamentals of public record law.

"I'm concerned about this because this is public information," he said. "The only way we can keep government honest is by transparency."

In the past few years, with the advent of simple-to-use but limited mapping programs like Google Maps and Google Earth, popular interest in computer mapping applications has been booming. Anyone with even a smattering of technical knowledge can produce "mash-up" maps that blend easy-to-use geographic services from Google, Yahoo and other companies with a multitude of different types of data: crime information from a local police agency, demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau, even housing rental information from online services like Craigslist.

The recent release of the Humboldt County data could help speed along a similar easy-to-use, comprehensive geographic service that has long been in the works locally, according to Doug Renwick, one of the principals of the Arcata-based CopiaGroup, a GIS consultancy that has done work for the county, the Harbor District, the Seventh Generation Fund and numerous other clients throughout the state.

"Everything happens someplace," Renwick said. "And where it happens, and when it happens there, is very significant. [GIS] is kind of like magic ink. It reveals stories that you wouldn't see otherwise."

One of the things that he and others have been trying to establish is a "Regional Geographic Information Collaborative" that would integrate all sorts of information on Humboldt County's cities, neighborhoods and wild lands in an online system that would be useful to everyone, from a scientist studying a forest or a stream to a tourist looking for a place to buy a hot dog.

People have been talking about such a system for years, he said -- several local GIS professionals met to discuss it again as recently as last week -- but the proposal has proved "politically complicated." Not every public agency wants to give up its data. Renwick said that he hoped that the attorney general's opinion could cut through some of the resistance and give new impetus to the collaborative.

County Assessor Linda Hill said Tuesday that she didn't yet know the impact the freeing of land ownership data would have on her budget. She estimated that her office takes in an average of $50,000 per year on copies of maps and other information provided to the public. Every year, she said, three or four large information brokers pay her office $3,600 per year for a database of land information and ownership records -- data that she must now give away for free.

Hill said that all of the information in the database is public information that anyone walking into her office could examine for free. What's different is that now they may also request all of that information in one fell swoop, to take home and install on their own computers essentially free of charge.

"I think it'll be interesting to see what comes of this situation, because it hasn't become totally reconciled yet," Hill said.



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