Feds, industry expand digital partnerships

But experts say their allure should not blind agencies to potential problems.

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Faced with an ever-growing mound of data, government agencies are beginning to look to companies for help in expanding online access to nonclassified documents. And although it means more information would be searchable online, open-government advocates worry about the legal implications.

Google, Yahoo and Microsoft already work with federal agencies through the companies’ site map programs to make more federal documents searchable by Web crawlers. But most agency data and federal records remain in paper form and must be digitized before they can be published and searched online. 

The high cost of digitization is spurring deals between digitization companies, search engines and government agencies. Open-government experts are enthusiastic about the ability of those agreements to make more public information available online, but they also worry that deals with companies could change how the public accesses government documents.  
“If [agencies] enter into agreements that don’t let them maintain control — not only over the document but also the metadata and the tagging of that record — those documents will not be searchable,” said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org.  “You won’t be able to find them unless they’re displayed on an agency site, or you go through a private search engine like Google [or] like Yahoo that may be collecting information about you.”

So far, deals between the federal government and large search engine companies such as Google or Yahoo have been limited. Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich said the company has no new digitization agreements with federal agencies to announce at this time, but Google officials “are always talking with various organizations — including government agencies —about ways to make information more available online.”

Google has a pilot program with the National Archives and Records Administration to digitize and make searchable more than 100 films on Google’s and NARA’s Web sites.  The company also has an agreement with NASA to make available on the Web what officials describe as the most useful information. Google also plans to collaborate with the agency on real-time weather visualization and forecasting, high-resolution 3-D maps of the moon and Mars, and real-time tracking of the International Space Station. Additionally, the company worked with the Library of Congress to digitize 5,000 books and start an international digital library.

But some observers say that as agreements become more prevalent, agencies need to be especially careful not to grant exclusivity or add de facto copyrights to public documents.
“Entering into some distribution arrangement — however effective it might be for the agency — that makes the citizen, the taxpayer, pay again for the information they’ve already paid for is simply nonsense,” said Glenn Schlarman, former chief of the Office of Management and Budget’s information policy and technology branch. Schlarman is considered an expert in federal information dissemination policy.

OMB issues policies for agencies to follow in disseminating information electronically in accordance with federal laws such as the Paperwork Reduction Act and the E-Government Act. The OMB policies say agencies cannot enter into any exclusive or restrictive distributive agreements, and they can’t charge the public more than the cost of distributing the information.  Private companies also cannot own or copyright public materials. To make money digitizing federal documents, companies must offer a value-added or premium search or distribution service. 

But critics say not all agreements have followed OMB’s policies that require public notification before a deal is finalized. The Association of Research Libraries says NARA failed to solicit public comment before its digitization-distribution deal with iArchives was completed. ARL also questions the agency’s decision to make the digitized documents available exclusively through an iArchive Web site for five years. 

“It’s a step in the right direction to have a plan for digitizing archival materials, but the plan isn’t necessarily the law, and they still have to operate within the law that is applicable to the agency when they engage in these conversations,” said Prudence Adler, associate executive director at the Association of Research Libraries.

Nancy Allard, a senior policy specialist at NARA, said the agency plans to post “the terms” of future deals ahead of time for public comment, and that while the iArchives agreement was an exception NARA did receive prior permission from OMB.

The agency also said it agreed with iArchives on five years as a reasonable time for the company to recoup the costs of digitizing the materials.

NARA’s deal with iArchives is an example of how agencies are trying to reach distribution agreements that satisfy OMB directives and make the companies’ investments worthwhile.

 NARA spokeswoman Susan Cooper also pointed out that with about 9 billion documents and a small budget, deals with the private sector are the only way to significantly increase the scope of what is searchable online. 

Under the iArchives agreement, the company covers all digitization costs and posts the electronic documents on the iArchives Web site at www.footnote.com. Citizens can go to the iArchives site at NARA’s archive branches nationwide to gain free access to the millions of microfilm documents that are online, or pay iArchives to view the documents from their own computers.

“Different partners are going to have different business models that they are working with for their own business,” Allard said. “iArchives is a subscription service, and Google primarily has been a search engine business, so the approach they take to working with us can be different. Our biggest interest is making sure that we do get rights to the digitized records and that public access in our research rooms is available.” 
NARA officials said they are working with OMB on a draft strategy, “Plan for Digitizing Archival Materials, 2007-2016,” which should be available for public comment in July.
Guidelines for making deals with companiesThe Office of Management and Budget sent these suggestions to agencies to consider when talking to companies about digitizing public documents.

The OMB suggested that agencies:
  • Provide adequate notice to the public before beginning, modifying or ending the distribution of important documents.
  • Distribute information to the public, including people without electronic access, on a timely and equitable basis.
  • Avoid exclusive or restrictive distribution arrangements with companies.
  • Set fees no higher than needed to cover the costs of distribution, and do not charge for preparing information for distribution.
  • Publish inventories, priorities and schedules of all agency information for distribution.
  • Ensure the quality of agency information and services and continued availability.
  • Maintain online information in the .gov, .mil and fed.us domains.
  • Describe dissemination activities in your agency’s information resources management strategic plans and publish those plans on your agency’s Web site.
  • Maintain information security and protect data privacy by following federal requirements.
— Ben Bain

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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