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The Semantic Web + Government Information = Serendipitous Reuse

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, said recently that all we need to build an exciting, creative World Wide Semantic Web is for information distributors to expose their information in standard, structured formats. (See: Berners-Lee: Semantic Web’s success lies in cooperation, By Jonathan Bennett, CNet News.com, Sep 19, 2006).

Ironically, the example he chose to use is British Ordnance Survey records. This is ironic because the British government now sells “limited-use licences” to its GIS data on a “cost recovery” basis. (See Free data – a valuable commodity, September 18, 2006). Such policies make what Berners-Lee calls “serendipitous reuse” virtually impossible.

For us in the U.S., the lesson is clear: if we want government information (public information, information collected, compiled, and created with public funds) to be part of the Semantic Web, GPO and other government agencies must guarantee that they will make such public information freely available, unencumbered by Digital Rights Management tools, and available in standardized, structured formats.

Unfortunately, GPO has explicitly announced its mission as distributing electronic documents “on a cost recovery basis.” This, along with policies such as OMB Circular A-130 that require reliance on the private sector and cost recovery go further to guaranteeing that government information will not be part of the Semantic Web.

GPO could go far to remedying this situation by changing its mission to guarantee that it will deposit digital government information with the existing Federal Depository Library Program libraries. Why does it not do so?

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1 Comment

  1. jrjacobs says:

    If GPO won’t guarantee serendipitous reuse and instead insists on “cost recovery” — really a euphamism for double-billing the American public — perhaps the American public should follow the example of the map ransom by harvesting electronic documents and donating them to the internet archive for permanent free access and preservation. Just thinkin’ ;-)

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