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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.

The Technical is Political

As much as we’d like to think that information policies are free from politics, it just isn’t true. It is not often that the press deals with how politics affects information policy, but it is increasingly easy for the press to deal with the issue when it comes to issues of technology. And so we have an article in this week’s Government Computer News:

Karrie Peterson and I wrote about this in some detail:

  • The Technical is Political by James A. Jacobs and Karrie Peterson, Of Significance… 3(1) 2001, p.25-35. Association of Public Data Users. (Full text PDF file)

In the realm of government information, technical decisions about data format, access software and public distribution methods are inherently political decisions. They affect what kind of data can be accessed, how, by whom, and for how long into the future it will be available. To evaluate and respond appropriately to policy changes by government producers of data, technical issues must also be looked at in the light of social values shared by the data-using community.

How does a newly decked-out data product fare with regard to open access? Privacy of individuals? Documentation that allows the data to be correctly cited, tested for reliability, re-used in the future? Social and political concerns also come into play when the flexibility offered by distributing raw data is balanced against locking the data into a “user-friendly” software, and when products traditionally produced by the federal government are privatized.

As private industry pushes harder for information to become a commodity – something that can be sold for profit – it is important for data users to push back with a strong philosophy of information as a social good, and to evaluate data products and access in light of their value to society, rather than on strictly narrow technical grounds.