The Noisy Channel


Information Sharing We Can Believe In

January 20th, 2009 · 6 Comments · General

Today is a monumental day in the history of the United States, and I suspect many readers will be too caught up in the inaugural festivities to be checking their RSS readers. But everyone has a job to do, and part of mine is to speak truth to power through blogging.

A few months ago, when Obama’s victory was hardly certain, I was fortunate to attend a meeting of New York technology executives where Jed Katz, a managing director at DFJ Gotham Ventures and a technology advisor to the Obama campaign, responded to questions about Obama’s technology strategy. What he made clear was that he, and by extension the Obama campaign and administration-to-be, was there as much to listen and learn as to respond.

I followed up with Jed by sending my ideas about how the federal government can better make public domain information available to the public. Today, much of that data is locked up in the hands of vendors who then dole it out in drabs. While these arrangements may have been necessary at the time to fund the distribution of that information, they are out of step with today’s technology. What we need is for anyone to be able to obtain that information in raw form and then add value to it by creating better ways to access and analyze it. In fact, private sector companies, universities, and NGOs could compete in their offerings.

I’m hardly the first person to suggest this. Vivek Kundra, the CTO of the District of Columbia and a short-listed candidate for CTO of the United States, organized Apps for Democracy, a contest much along the lines of what I’m describing.

I work in the private sector, and I’m not swayed by the naive conception that  all information needs to be free. Some of us would like to earn a living! But public domain information produced by government needs to be freely available to an informed and active citizenry. Moreover, information freely contributed by that citizenry should to be available to decision makers, as well as to the at large.

Today is a milestone many of us never expected we’d live to see, a president who “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.” Let’s raise the stakes and aim for a government that doesn’t look like the information-hiding governments of our past. That is change I can believe in.

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel Lemire // Jan 20, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Free information and making a living only oppose themselves if you sell information for a living.

    Which business are you in?

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Jan 20, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    At least part of my business involves selling software to clients who sell information. So the fact that the information isn’t free does help pay my mortgage, albeit through a few levels of indirection.

  • 3 Mark Watkins // Jan 20, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    It might be worth making the distinction between “data” and “information”. Perhaps “data”, raw facts, produced with tax dollars should be freely available, insofar as it can be cheaply and efficiently made available by the government, whereas “information” or “meaning” or “insight”, produced by interesting algorithms and/or search interfaces, might remain proprietary.

    Also interesting to note the rather loud (and important) debate going on relative to Library Catalog records and who owns the catalog(s) of the world’s book data – seems highly relevant to this discussion – a good place to start if you are interested is the LibraryThing blog:

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Jan 21, 2009 at 12:35 am

    Sure, that’s exactly the distinction I have in mind. Make the raw data free, and let people compete–and try to make money if they’d like–in the ways they add value to it. But don’t limit access to the raw data. The distinction between “data” and “information” is often in the eye of the beholder–or in pitch of the person trying to sell the latter for a higher price. đŸ™‚

    This earlier post might shed some more light on what I have in mind:

    As for the OCLC debate, I have tried to keep track of it. But that is a debate among private entities. Important as it is, it doesn’t carry quite the same weight as giving a country’s citizens access to public government data.

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