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New questions arise about how accessible agencies should make government data

"NOAA's New Policy on Partnerships in the Provision of Environmental Information"

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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The new policy, which took effect in December, also rescinded a provision that differentiated which environmental information the government and private sector could provide.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."

Government information plain or fancy?

Many companies add enhancements and analyses to information that the government provides free online. The companies then charge subscribers for the added value.

Here are examples of government-provided information and commercial sources for that information.

* The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides government-collected weather and environmental data, which was formerly distributed in proprietary formats but is now offered in open-standard formats for free.

AccuWeather customizes information and analyzes NOAA's weather and environmental data, providing computer forecast model information, commentary, worldwide surface observation and historical data, 22 types of local radar images and high-resolution graphics for a subscription fee.

* EDGAR is a database of registration statements, reports and other forms that domestic and foreign companies have filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Access is free. Hoover's is a database of information based on EDGAR, including SEC filings about public and private companies, executive lists,

biographies and competitor information. The database is accessible after paying a subscription fee.

* Thomas is a free database of bill summaries, the full text of legislation and other documents such as the Congressional Record Index. Congressional Quarterly produces subscription-based print products based on Thomas, including congressional daily schedules, news updates, articles and information on all bills scheduled for floor consideration. is a collection of databases with user-defined search tools for tracking the progress of legislation.

— Aliya Sternstein

Is Thomas enough?

The government generally gets high marks for the Thomas Web site, which offers summaries and the full text of legislation online. But some lawmakers think it should be improved.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a proponent of open government, is one of several lawmakers who want to see Thomas expanded to offer Internet access to additional legislative documents such as voting records, Congressional Research Service publications, Senate gift reports and committee documents. Thomas, he says, should be easier to navigate and more comprehensive.

"The Thomas Web site was a good start and is an important resource for constituents, but it can and should be much stronger," Cornyn is quoted as saying in a forthcoming article in the LBJ Journal of Public Affairs.

Improvements are needed, agreed Patrice McDermott, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations. For example, she would like congressional markups and committee reports to be added to Thomas.

McDermott said the legislative database should also be a historical tool that anyone could use to follow the passage of a bill.

But uncertainty exists as to whether lawmakers can reach consensus and find funds to enhance the free information service. "The software industry has an effective lobbying group that will dissuade Congress from spending taxpayer money on publishing," including the Thomas database, said Daniel Barkley, coordinator of government information and microforms at the University of New Mexico.

Other funding approaches may be possible. Barkley said he would like to see the Government Printing Office become the main source of free government information. "Thomas is a great tool, but so is GPO," he added. "If they took the pot of money that's available to both and rolled it into one, you'd have a great resource."

— Aliya Sternstein


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