Should federal government data be open to the public? Perhaps a better way to frame the question is whether or not the federal government should make public data publicly available. Because databases compiled by the government are, with few exceptions, already open to the public, if you can track them down in the first place. And this problem with discovering government datasets has long been the rub.
The federal government collects data for many reasons, but generally data gathering is for regulatory, compliance or statistical reasons. When this data gathering relates to business entities, there’s usually a business opportunity to be found. That’s because government agencies usually collect data for one specific purpose only. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration maintains a database of all airplanes that are licensed for operation in the United States. It collects a lot of data about both the plane and its owner, but its overall objective is simply to keep a record of whether or not a given plane is licensed to operate. Even if it puts this database online for public access, your ability to search the database is limited to looking up specific airplanes by tail number or owner. This is the compliance focus of government manifesting itself. But that’s great news for commercial data publishers who can get the underlying database and add tremendous value simply by making the data parametrically searchable. Online government databases are almost always designed to help the user find information on a single, known entity. Parametric search creates a powerful sales prospecting tool. Suddenly, the database can be searched by make and model and age of the plane, with the ability to limit search results to specific geographies.
Needless to say, federal government databases can offer huge business opportunities because the government has done all the compilation work, at its own expense, and even keeps the database updated for you. But again, the challenge is finding and accessing these databases in the first place. Government agencies have no incentive to merchandise their internal databases, and many continue to resist opening their datasets to the public, usually out of bureaucratic fear or inertia.
Yes, there is data.gov, a much-heralded federal government initiative to not only move more data online, but to put it all in a central place. But the datasets of interest to commercial data publishers will rarely be found there. However, if you’re interested in data on migratory butterflies in Oklahoma, data.gov is a great place to go.
That’s why I am excited by the OPEN Government Data Act (OPEN Data Act, S. 2852, H.R. 5051) that will mandate that all federal government agencies make all of their datasets immediately available for public use, subject only to a handful of exceptions. This is a bill worth watching and supporting. Fortunes have already been made by commercial data publishers with the savvy and persistence to navigate the federal labyrinth. The OPEN Data Act will level the playing field and open even more opportunities to leverage government data for commercial applications. What’s not to like?