Should Governments Sell Data?

Under the broad label of “open data,” governments around the world are opening up increasing numbers of fascinating and often valuable datasets to public access, in many cases, via API.
As a recent article in Network World notes, London makes nearly 500 datasets available, and even smaller cities in the UK like Leeds make hundreds of datasets available as well. Perhaps most interesting of all is the initiative by the city of Copenhagen, called City Data Exchange, which takes open data in two important new directions. First, it intends to charge for its data, and second, it is also offering relevant databases from for-profit data producers, also for a fee.

The US has not been a leader in the open data movement, though more government data comes online on almost a daily basis now. Typically, the model in the US is that government data made available to the public is made available for free. That makes sense, since it was gathered at taxpayer expense and should therefore be made available for free – keeping the “free” in Freedom of Information if you will.
But when you think about it, there may be some merit to governments charging reasonable fees to access public datasets. Simply put, it forces governments to treat their data and the people using their data with more professionalism and respect. I’ve been involved in several promising projects that were to be based on government databases that suddenly disappeared because funding was cut, or the person who was responsible for the initiative left the agency and wasn’t replaced. It’s great to have a business based on free government data – until it isn’t. You are at the mercy of an organization that collects data its own way, for its own purposes, and only for as long as it feels it needs to collect it. Putting a revenue stream behind a dataset starts to change that dynamic.
Also of interest is Copenhagen’s plan to be a reseller of private databases. On the one hand, I celebrate the innovation and progressive thinking in this move. On the other hand, it feels backwards to me. If there is a commercial database that complements a government-created database, I think it makes a lot more sense for the commercial database publisher to resell the government data alongside its own. After all, it has the larger financial incentive, it has the staff that really understands data, and it has the marketing and sales capability the government lacks. Government entities are not well positioned to sell their own data, much less someone else’s data, and the better they get at it, the more likely they will cross the line and start competing with private business.
Government is a great source of data, though historically it has been a somewhat undependable source of data. Perhaps putting some modest revenue around it could improve that situation. But moving into the business of selling commercial data products, however well intentioned, is a bridge too far. There are too many specialized skills involved that government entities don’t have and shouldn’t develop.

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