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Government Information? You’re Soaking in It!

You're soaking in it! Source - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/52/Madge_palmolive.jpg
You’re soaking in it! Source – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/52/Madge_palmolive.jpg

[UPDATE #1: Christian James tweeted that besides the National Agricultural Library, we should also credit USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and their National Nutrient Database. So big thanks to USDA-ARS!]

Many Americans don’t think they use government information, but they’re wrong. Many people think that the private sector meets their information needs just fine and government shouldn’t be “wasting resources” by collecting and sharing information. They’re wrong too.

But it’s not entirely their fault. For example, in the last few months Bing and Google both started to provide an impressive amount of nutritional information in response to searches on food names. I’m a fan of kale chips, so I typed “kale” into Google and got this:


Kale "from Google"
Kale “from Google”

The private sector at work, right? Who needs the government to produce nutritional information when we can just Google or Bing it? Right?

Um. No. If you look at the very bottom of the image in both Google and Bing, you’ll find some very important fine print. Here it is from Google:

USDA (National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 27) The secret sauce.
USDA (National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 27) The secret sauce.

Notice the tiny “Sources include USDA”? If you think to mouse down to the word “USDA” and click it, you’ll be whisked away to the entry for kale in the US Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, produced by the National Agricultural Library (NAL).

Cut the NAL too much and they’ll have to drop the National Nutrient Database. Then bye-bye to your real time, up to date nutritional data in your search engines results.

The invisible hand of government information shows up in a lot of places if you know to look for it. In the pre internet days you could have not produced an almanac without one. Today, any private website that has any sort of detailed demographic information for states, cities and neighborhoods is almost certainly pulling from the beleaguered Census Bureau. Those private sector sites telling you about the hottest jobs in demand over the next ten years? Likely pulling from the Occupational Outlook Handbook produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And so it goes. If people say, “I don’t use government information, I use Google” show them how they’re actually soaking in government information. Then ask them to write Congress to keep their hands off their favorite information sources.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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