New questions arise about how accessible agencies should make government data
- By Aliya Sternstein
- Feb 06, 2005
"NOAA's New Policy on Partnerships in the Provision of Environmental Information"
Advocates of free access to government information recently claimed a modest victory — but did they celebrate too early?
A new policy of providing weather information and other environmental data to the broadest possible audience in easily usable formats has reversed a long-standing practice of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Instead of offering weather information in proprietary formats to a limited number of companies for resale, NOAA officials will provide environmental data in nonproprietary formats that any person or organization can use and commercialize if they choose.
The new policy, which took effect in December, also rescinded a provision that differentiated which environmental information the government and private sector could provide. It is also more flexible. According to the policy, NOAA's assistant administrators and chief information officer must set procedures for consulting with commercial, nonprofit and academic organizations before deciding to offer new information feeds or discontinue existing ones.
But the new policy may do little to ease the tensions that exist between companies that profit from publishing government information and public-interest groups that advocate open access to that information.
Reactions among commercial publishers and open-access advocates to the new policy were predictable. Open-access advocates welcomed it; some well-known commercial publishers criticized it.
Yet even with NOAA's new policy — or perhaps because of
it — some critics of the Bush administration's policies say that the balance between open access and commercial interests will tilt toward privatization.
The availability of government information in digital formats has added a new dimension to long-standing tensions between commercial publishers and public-interest groups. Technology advances, including the Internet, allow agency officials to easily provide information to the public directly and inexpensively.
But for companies in the business of making government information accessible and searchable, the government as a direct provider of digital information raises competitive concerns.
For example, commercial publishers and industry associations are opposed to the government using "push" technology to feed customized information directly to users, said David LeDuc, director of public policy at the Software and Information Industry Association, a trade group that represents electronic publishers such as LexisNexis and Dun and Bradstreet.
"We don't want to see the government getting into [that] business," LeDuc said, because it would ultimately discourage
private-sector efforts to provide such services.
Other commercial publishers share LeDuc's fear that push technology, if offered by federal agencies for distributing government information, could hurt their business of providing such information tailored to specific industries or markets.
"We're not concerned about the formats they put their stuff in," said Barry Lee Myers, executive vice president of AccuWeather, which provides weather information. "In fact, the easier, the better," he said, referring to NOAA's new policy of distributing its data in an open-standard Extensible Markup Language format.
But Myers said he opposes NOAA and National Weather Service officials using push technology to deliver that data. "We don't believe they should duplicate what the private sector does," he said. For example, some companies create special forecasts for specific industries and deliver information in different combinations to satisfy individual consumers, he said.
On the other side, open-access advocates say they are paying close attention to how NOAA and other federal officials disseminate electronic information.
Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a group based in Washington, D.C., that promotes the use of technology and democratic values, said XML standards will allow government officials to publish information in raw form at no cost to consumers. Weather information services, for example, constitute a more than $10 billion-per-year
Other proponents of open access to government information point to the fate of PubScience, a short-lived Energy Department venture, to illustrate the tension between commercial publishers and open-access advocates. PubScience was a free, searchable index of peer-reviewed journal abstracts.
Commercial publishers, including Dutch giant Elsevier Science, opposed PubScience, claiming the government was improperly and unfairly competing with commercial information services. Under pressure from the Software and Information Industry Association, Energy officials stopped publishing PubScience in November 2002.
But PubScience's demise was not inevitable. Governmentwide policy on electronic publishing tries to balance commercial and free access to government information. Circular A-130, an Office of Management and Budget policy, describes the respective roles of the government and the private sector in publishing government information.
The circular states that agencies have a responsibility to provide information to the public by disseminating it "in a manner that achieves the best balance between the goals of maximizing the usefulness of the information and minimizing the cost to the government and public."
Under that general policy, weather information is only one variety of digital information that government officials freely make available, and commercial publishers repackage — or add value to — the data and sell it. Two examples are EDGAR, a Securities and Exchange Commission database of corporate financial statements, and Thomas, a legislative database maintained by the Library of Congress.
Ken Allen, a former president of the Information Industry Association, said EDGAR and Thomas are good examples of governmentwide policy working well — both provide value without diminishing the market for private-sector alternatives such as Yahoo Finance and Congressional Quarterly.
"The government has the responsibility to put the information out there but not compete with the private sector," Allen said.
Some open-access advocates say commercial repackaging of government information adds value and benefits the government, industry and public. Mary Alice Baish, the Washington, D.C., representative to the American Association of Law Libraries, said adding value to government information means organizing it, making it searchable and analyzing it.
Nevertheless, others argue that the near-universal availability of government information in digital formats has hurt the commercial publishing industry, and they believe that the government should not compete with it.
On the other hand, open-access advocates say taxpayers should not be forced to pay for government information twice, as they do when they buy such information from commercial publishers.
The effects of NOAA's new policy will not be perceptible for a few years. But Daniel Barkley, coordinator of government information and microforms at the University of New Mexico and a former chairman of the Depository Library Council, said he thinks the balance between government and commercial publishers of federal information could tilt toward privatization.
"I think it's pretty clear that Bush administration [officials have] the mind-set that anything the public sector can do, the private sector can do better," Barkley said. "It wouldn't surprise me if there was a stronger push for the privatization of information."
But in Barkley's opinion, that would be a disservice to the public. Commercial publishers, he said, would selectively publish information that generates the most profits.
Whatever happens during the next few years, NOAA's new policy is a welcome reversal of recent trends in government publishing, a former federal policy official said. Bruce McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at OMB and now president of the consulting firm McConnell International, said the possibility of greater access to government information is important.
"Under the guise of homeland security, a lot of government information has been taken off the Web," he said. "Now, NOAA is doing something different. This is a bright spot in a picture that's otherwise more mixed."