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My taxes = my info, right?

Let’s talk about Open Access to taxpayer funded government information.

The open access movement wants nothing less than “Putting peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly literature on the internet. Making it available free of charge and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. Removing the barriers to serious research.” The argument for open access to government information is fairly simple: tax money has already paid for this work, restricting access to it through copyright, fees, print-only publication or other complicated access or licensing requirements is antithetical to the idea of scholarship and the purpose of government. This is an Internet-era desire since the costs associated with publication can now be mitigated down to something manageable. Read much more about Open Access here.

There are recognized exceptions, of course, such as classified, military research, research that leads to patents, and research published in some royalty-producing form, such as books. The Office of Management and Budget has a publication that describes the value in maximizing access to information, but stops short of mandating that access to government information be free. In OMB Circular A-130 they state that

“In determining whether and how to disseminate information to the public, agencies will: (i) Disseminate information in a manner that achieves the best balance between the goals of maximizing the usefulness of the information and minimizing the cost to the government and the public;”

Federal Computer Week argues that this “maximizing usefulness” clause allows for the distribution of raw data to the private sector who can repackage and “value add” to the data making the government’s cost of distribution lower while not totally restricting non-fee-based access.

As one example mentioned briefly here earlier, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had been technically providing access to their weather data to the public all along, but it was in a proprietary format and difficult to work with. People who wanted easy to understand weather data had to use commercial weather providers. At the end of 2004, NOAA began making their digital forecast database available in standard XML format. Who likes this? The public. Who doesn’t like this? Private sector companies that resell this data. However, since they often have the ears of our elected representatives, we have seen our own government trying to legislate restricted access to government information in order to benefit the private sector.

What other hurdles are there to open access? The NOAA example includes a few: non-proprietary data formats, unfair leveraging of private sector’s “rights” to value add and resell data, and legislators themselves. There are also the restrictions mentioned above: web and accessibility standards for information (requiring people to use one browser, or one type of computer), copyright and restrictions on distribution, and fees for obtaining copies of government information.

Of course, the major hurdle is often mental, or perhaps ideological. We don’t know we have the right to this information. We will take no for an answer. The people with the information have their own reasons for not making it as easy as humanly possible to obtain. Many of those reasons are even prosaic (though possibly obstructionist) and reasonable-seeming. In the wake of 9/11, with the government’s increasing tendency to want to circle the wagons in the name of cautiousness, now more than ever it’s important to continue to say “That’s my information, and I’d like some more.” [thanks to libwitch for the inspiration]

Further Reading

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