Making Government Information More Accessible

A co-worker tipped me off to a public, non-profit service that deserves all the publicity it can get. It’s called Public.Resource.Org, run by technologist and public domain advocate Carl Malamud, and devoted to “making [U.S.] government information more accessible”.

Not sold on the value of this service yet? Consider this example of their good deeds.

Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information from Federal Appellate, District and Bankruptcy courts, and the U.S. Party/Case Index via the Internet. These documents are works of the United States government and are in the public domain. But, for reasons that have no place in a 21st century democratic government, PACER charges $0.08 / page to download copies of these records–more than most of us pay for analog photocopying!

Enter the PACER recycling program, run by Public.Resource.Org:

Just upload all your PACER Documents to our recycling bin. Click on the recycle bin and you’ll be presented with a dialogue to choose files to upload. Then, just hit the “Start Upload” button and you’ll hear the sounds of progress as your documents get reinjected into the public domain.

We’ll take the documents, look at them, and then put them onto for future distribution. This is a manual process and you won’t see your documents show up right away. But, over time, we hope to accumulate a significant database of PACER Documents.

They claim to have saved $9,104.08 so far. That’s hardly enough to, say, bail out the auto industry, but it’s a step in the right direction. More importantly, efforts like this instill a culture I wish we could take for granted–namely, that public government documents should be generally available to the citizenry. Like most technologists, I have a libertarian streak, and I’m the first to defend the private sector. But this is a case where the goods themselves belong to the public. No one should profit at the expense of an informed citizenry.

p.s. Perhaps this effort will interest people trying to assemble corpora for information retreival research.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

2 replies on “Making Government Information More Accessible”

FWIW – US Courts does not want to charge for the documents, they’re forced (by Congress) to recoup the cost of the service. They made the fees as low as possible. Also, you can get access now at some depository libraries.


I realize that pointing fingers within government bureaucracy is tricky, and I didn’t intend to single out the judiciary branch.

As for the cost-recouping, Carl Malamud argues that:

In 2006, the fund received $447.8 million, but they could only figure out what to do with $301.2 million, the so-called “obligated balance.” In other words, they had a “significant unobligated balance” of $146.6 million. At 8 cents per page for a PACER Document, they could give away 1.8 billion pages of documents to the public and still have all the money they need to pay for their computers.

I can’t verify his numbers. Regardless, 8 cents a page is significant for these bloated documents–and it’s more than the cost of photocopying them. Something seems very wrong about that in what is purportedly an information age, where the marginal cost of distribution is essentially zero.


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