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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Govistics and the need for library data microservices

Several of us here at Stanford library who deal with data and/or govt information have recently received emails asking if we’d be interested in a free trial of the Pro level of subscription to the Govistics Government Spending Database built by the Center for Governmental Research (CGR). I’m a sucker for free trials, so took them up on their offer. Here’s what I found — and please take it with an FGI grain of salt 😉

The interface is easy for quick results and high-level comparisons, but I found it lacking for any kind of in-depth scholarly pursuits — the researchers and students I work with would most likely be interested in historic data for all counties or all municipalities in a state or region or ALL states; and they’d probably want the data exportable so they could do further analysis with a statistical package (SPSS etc) or GIS software. I also didn’t find the maps or charts particularly compelling. $50/year for an individual subscription (I didn’t ask about an institutional subscription) seems like too steep a price to pay when there are other *free* tools out there — my personal favorite is Many Eyes (also check out their new project Many Bills visual bill explorer!). Many Eyes allows a person to upload datasets, share them, run a variety of visualizations (charts, graphs, maps, clouds etc), and most importantly embed those visualizations in other Web pages. Govistics doesn’t do any of that.

And what about the underlying data you say? Govistics is basically US census of govts which is available for free on factfinder.census.gov (although only in PDF with no data export :-|). Many of the same variables are also available via the Census’ County and City Data Book (again only PDF :-|). Govistics only offers data export with the pro version and the data only goes back to 2007.

I don’t begrudge the govistics folks trying to make a quick buck on public domain data that’s already available online for free (well maybe a little). Perhaps for the casual user, this service will work well. But what I’d love to see is libraries creating interfaces like this *for free*. There needs to be free tools that include access + visualization + preservation. UVA has done gotten a great start with their historical county and city data books 1944-2000(!). This is especially cool because it not only gives access to historical data back to 1944 (no visualization yet, but users can use Many Eyes!) and allows for export of data for reuse, but it provides a preservation model as well. And THAT’S why I’d love to see more libraries doing this sort of thing. This is an increasingly data driven world and it would behoove libraries to combine these kind of access/visualization services with libraries’ traditional strength in long-term preservation.

–that is all.

Why is the 1957 Census of Govts deemed under copyright?

I just talked with a researcher who was interested in getting his hands on a digital copy of the 1957 Census of Governments. My momentary joy at finding a copy at the University of Michigan (my go-to library to find digital govt documents!) quickly turned to disappointment on seeing the message:

Page images and full text of this item are not available due to copyright restrictions.

There ought to be a way for people/librarians to check the document for copyrighted bits and then quickly flip a switch to release it into the public domain and make it accessible to everyone. Is that too much to ask? Over time, we could lessen the impact that Google’s scorched earth copyright policy has on documents that should rightfully be in the public domain. And another thing, why didn’t they scan statistical resources to .csv files?!

That is all.