Government Information: A Classic "Pick Two" Option

Last week, there were a couple of random tweets that flew between Ed Walters, Don Cruse, and me that weren't really a big deal in and of itself, but it got me thinking about the way that Government data is compiled, accessible, online, authoritative, and free to the end-user. Ed's tweet was what caught my eye, when he said:
"#opengov divide is between free and open, IMHO. @Google=free, @Fastcase=open (for example). Public.Resource.org=both #lawgov". 
There were a few more tweets amongst the group, where I asked if this meant that PACER was in the "open" category the same way that "Fastcase=open" (or if you're in Texas, "Casemaker=Open")? Don Cruse didn't think so and added:
"Nope. PACER tries to restrict reuse and redistribution of data, putting it in a form that's hard to access."
The whole Open/Free access to government information, especially the laws, regulations and court decisions that we have to abide by, made me think of the old saying of "you can have it fast, cheap or good… now pick two." Only with the type of information we're talking about here, there may be more than three things we need, yet we may only be able to still pick two of those things in what we end up with.

I guess the Holy Grail of pushing the type of government information that those of us in the legal industry would like to see, has the following characteristics:

  • Complete
  • Open Access
  • Online Content
  • Authoritative 
  • Free

Now… pick which two you want.

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Don Cruse said...


Thanks for writing this up in blog format.

What sparked my original comment to Ed was his retweeting of an article critical of someone for taking government data and reselling it in a modified form. Here's that tweet:


The comment he was retweeting, by an open-government advocate, hinted that the fruits of taxpayer-funded data should by rights always be free.

The particular example (research folded into a paid journal) is a fuzzy one.

But I saw it as touching on a deeper question within "open government" --- the tension between the idealists who want to reduce the cost of accessing data (often people in the general public or newsgatherers -- "if only we had free case law and free formbooks we could throw all the lawyers in the river!") versus the people who see government data as an platform to innovate and build tools for analysis that weren't possible before. I put Ed in that second camp; the thought he was retweeting in the first.

That's the question I was asking, really. Does someone have a good framework for thinking about this question for "open government"?

I favor the model that, once the government makes data free (open and at essentially zero cost to the public), then it should be fair game for anyone to build whatever they like on top. If it's easy enough to build a no-cost service, somebody might. The raw data price would stay near zero (although it sure hasn't with court opinions, which is a different topic).

But it really shouldn't offend the idea of "open government" when somebody builds something more innovative and valuable on top of government data.

Margie Maes said...

How about adding "preserved for permanent access" to your list? Then, with six options, maybe "pick three" is more appropriate.

Greg Lambert said...

Sorry... You're still limited to two choices.


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