There are at least two ways to look at this story from National Journal‘s technology newsletter.
- Data, Data Everywhere, By Adam Mazmanian, Tech Daily Dose (May 16, 2012).
It’s not clear why access to 600 gazillion terabytes (or thereabouts) of free, machine-readable data covering traffic accidents, copper smelting, phytoplankton cell counts and other fascinating, everyday topics have only inspired, at last count, 85 mobile apps.
One is that government hasn’t found the right incentives to attract development of applications that make use of the wealth of government data in datasets that are more easily available than ever. This explanation is probably what drove the administration to host a “data pep rally… designed to stimulate interest in translating raw data into simple, navigable apps that consumers can use on mobile devices” today.
Another is that the whole idea of relying on the private sector to make information freely useable and useful (see, for example, The Federal Government Must Reimagine Its Role As An Information Provider) is not sufficient. This free-market approach to government information suggests limiting the role of governments to that of providing raw data to developers. This approach assumes that the market will turn that raw data into useful information products.
There is, I believe, reason to be concerned about the free-market approach to government information.
One reason is that, by reducing the role of government we will not gain better or more complete access to information; we will diminish and reduce our access to information. We can see that already with the Census Bureau’s cancellation of the Statistical Abstract (see The demise of the Statistical Abstract and other critical Census titles.) With this model, the government stops producing useful information packages and the private sector does its best to fill the gap and charges a lot of money to do so. That has a lot of bad side effects, though. For one thing, it puts a cost barrier between the information and users. For another, to use the Statistical Abstract example, it is not even clear that the private sector can do more than imitate the product the government produced. (See all the tables in the StatAb that contain “unpublished” data from government agencies. For example, in section 2, “Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces,” I count 12 tables with unpublished data; in section 4, “Education,” I count 32 tables with unpublished data. [counts from the 2012 Statistical Abstract].)
But there is another alternative. We could recognize that the government does have an important role in packaging raw data into meaningful packages of statistical tables, reports, views, and end-user-ready information. This makes sense for two reasons: First, it builds on the idea that information gathered and created by the government is public information and should be easily, freely, publicly usable by the public. That means that the government, which knows this information that it gathered and created best, should create the first package or product or view of that information. This is still, mostly, the default way governments behave for lots of government information. They use everything from press releases of current economic statistics, to amazingly useful reports like the Special Studies (P-23) series from the Census Bureau, to complex web sites like that at the The Bureau of Labor Statistics. Second, it makes sense because these government-produced information products will be better than any “pep rally” to attract others (private sector, public sector, and individual users) to dig into the raw data, to analyze the data, and to develop apps.