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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.

National Weather Service under risk of privatization. John Oliver has more

Talking about the weather is supposed to be the one safe topic that people from all stripes can talk about. But John Oliver ruins that — in an extremely funny and informative way of course! He explains the importance of the National Weather Service (NWS), which is a sub-agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NWS makes all of its weather forecasts and climate data openly available for free and also shares data and modeling with other weather services around the world through its membership in the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). One could argue that the National Weather Service is among the most critical government services and a global public good.

Over the last 15-20 years however, there has been a concerted push by private companies to get into the weather game. Whereas companies like AccuWeather and the Weather Channel would in the past use NWS data and add value to it, today, according to Andrew Blum — who wrote the recently published book “The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast”
“…you’ve got companies running their own models, deploying their own observing systems,” and as Oliver points out, acting as gatekeepers to weather data. Check out Blum’s interview on a recent PBS Newshour for more context and by all means, watch Oliver’s piece below.

The most recent move at privatization of the weather is when the Trump administration named Barry Myers, the ex-CEO of AccuWeather, for the dual post of NOAA Administrator and Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, Department of Commerce and include oversight of the National Weather Service. His nomination was submitted in October, 2017 and renewed in January, 2018 and again in 2019. His nomination was stalled for quite a while, but in April of this year, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee voted 14-12 along party lines to move Myers’ nomination forward.

Myers’ nomination is extremely problematic for 2 reasons: 1) He has gone on the record in support of privatizing the weather service — in 2005, he and his brother gave money to then-Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) who “introduced legislation aimed at curtailing government competition with private weather services”; and 2) AccuWeather this year agreed to pay a substantial fine for “sexual harassment and a hostile work environment” while Myers was AccuWeather’s chief executive. Is this really the person we want providing oversight to the National Weather Service and NOAA as a whole?!

Obstacles to the dream of universal access

This paper, while examining issues around open access to digital information from museums and cultural heritage institutions, touches on issues that are relevant to government information:

Crofts, of the Museés d’art et d’histoire, Switzerland, argues that one of the biggest obstacles to universal access is the commercial interests and desire by museums to “brand” their “assets.”

To put it bluntly, universal access may be in conflict, or at least may be perceived to be in conflict, with an institution’s commercial interests….

In the current economic climate there is strong pressure on museums of all sorts, both public and private, to maximise their performance – to turn a profit or, at least, to cut costs – and to demonstrate their relevance in terms of number of visitors. A museum’s collections are its major “asset”. Access to the collection and derived products can be commercialised directly or, in a not-for-profit organisation, leveraged so as to shine by whatever performance criteria are in place. In this context, allowing free unrestricted access to these assets may be seen simply as undermining the institution’s potential or, more cannily, as a form of advertising….

Incorporated into a common search engine, digital assets tend to become fungible and anonymous, just part of an immense result set, or worse still, they may become identified with the search engine itself….

Copyright notices and other restrictions on institutional websites generally prevent or at least discourage reuse.

This reminds me of GPO and other government agencies that are forced through legislation, skimpy budgets, and OMB regulations to attempt to commercialize their “assets” — what we might call “charging the public for information it has already paid for.”

Different agencies attack these problems differently. I was particularly reminded of the PACER courts information project, when I read this in Crofts’ paper:

…for many institutions, the accounting costs associated with charging for use of images far exceeds any revenue….

While making cultural material freely available is part of their mission, and therefore a goal that they are obliged to support, it may still come into conflict with other factors, notably commercial interests

Stephen Schultze examined the profits being made by the PACER project in his recent seminar at the Berkman Center (see Lunchtime Listen: Open Access to Government Documents).

FDLP librarians have seen this approach tried over and over again. When GPO first launched GPO Access it charged for access while at the same time providing free access inside FDLP libraries. Libraries responded by creating gateways that provided free access to GPO Access. GPO eventually cooperated with this grass-roots effort (GPO Access Gateways Project) and finally dropped its effort to charge for access to GPO Access. More recently, we have seen agencies using licensing restrictions to restrict access (GPO details onerous restrictions on digital materials) and agencies cooperating with the private sector to commodify their resources (The NARA/TGN contract as a bad precedent). And, with the PACER project, we see a return to the old model of limiting free access to certain facilities (Pilot Project: Free Access to Federal Court Records at 16 Libraries).

When legislative bodies skimp on the budgets for public dissemination of public information and create regulations that favor the private sector over the public sector for dissemination (rather than relying on both equally), they create obstacles to access. When agencies seek to commercialize their information and control access to it, they set up barriers to access. These obstacles are not in the interest of the the government or the people.

I would like to think that such efforts are doomed to failure the way charging for GPO Access failed. But when agencies use licenses to prevent free access and when libraries fail to take the initiative to demand free access and cooperate with projects that limit free access, it is difficult to imagine how free access will survive.

Amazon and CustomFlix to sell NARA films

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a new agreement with Amazon.com to reproduce and sell copies of thousands of historic films from NARA’s collections. Unlike the controversial deal that the Smithsonian made with Showtime, which gave Showtime “semiexclusive” rights to Smithsonian content, the NARA deal with Amazon is “non-exclusive.” NARA will get a digitized “preservation copy” of content that CustomFlix processes.

This is surely a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we’ll have better access to more content for more people and NARA gets some digital conversion done.

On the other hand, It is not yet clear which content will be made more accessible and which will not. Almost certainly, we’ll see a preference for that which has commercial value rather than scholarly value. In addition, “access” will be for a fee and not free and, presumably, the fees will not be based on “cost recovery” but on profit.

Nina Gilden Seavey, an Emmy-winning filmmaker and director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University notes the reason for this kind of outsourcing and commercialization.

“Ultimately, the accessibility of the collections and the maintenance of the collections has become such a huge burden on the federal government, the question is how to provide some sort of self-sustaining mechanism for use of these collections.”

This deal provides one vision of how to provide accessibility and maintenance. Another path would have the government and libraries taking responsibility to preserve such content and make it freely available.