There ain’t no such thing as a free (open government data) lunch

There's no such thing as a free lunch.
Credit: Dana Fradon

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch — I like that saying. It’s important to remember that it costs money to provide access to information, even public government or municipal information. Someone must pay. But who pays and how much? I like Philip Ashlock’s Tweets so I follow him on Twitter, he also has a nifty proposal called DemocracyMap in the Knight News Challenge. Our NearbyFYI proposal is also in the semi-final round with Philip’s, so when I saw his recent Tweet about “Paying for Public Data” it piqued my interest.

“There are certain elements of our democratic system of government that are so essential to its freedoms and principles that we have to make them as accessible as possible and provide them free of charge.”

That line got my attention and guaranteed that I’d read his entire article. I realize the piece is mostly a response to David Eave’s Tech President post about grant funded projects potentially destabilizing for-profit organizations. I’m not going to weigh in on that discussion as I don’t have strong opinions, but I do want to unpack Philip’s statement that some government information should be free of charge. It’s something that I’ve written about before but I think it’s worth teasing out more.

The government data ecosystem

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, reading and doing in the Open Government space and I think the following four statements pretty accurately represent the current government data ecosystem:

  1. Citizens must have access to information about their municipality or government.
  2. Access to information has a cost.
  3. Corporations derive revenue from government data.
  4. Citizens pay corporations for services built with government data.

I’m going to focus on statement #2, I have plenty of thoughts about #1, #3 and #4 for a later time, let’s focus on #2 first.

Access to government information has a cost

There are real costs when we interact with our government and request access to information about it. In the non-digital world we need government employees to pull documents from filing cabinets, answer phone calls and handle in-person information requests. Municipal employees attend public meetings, give presentations and summarize reports for us. The human cost to access analog government information is real.

The Open Government movement usually focuses on the digital world, but digital access to government information has real costs too. Proprietary software solutions require licensing fees and support contracts, and open source approach requires knowledgable IT staff, dev-ops and probably developers. There are support costs for open source too, people to help answer questions. There are costs to digitize documents, setup new data publishing workflows and smaller fees for servers (cloud or not), bandwidth, and electricity.

Who is paying the costs now?

I think we often miss an important point when we talk about free, public or open government data — that when we require our government to provide better access to information that it creates a new expense line item. This means that we as citizens pay for improved access — but are we getting a good return on that investment and expense? Larger cities currently pay vendors to provide Open Data portals and information publishing solutions for them. There are open source alternatives like CKAN too. These solutions can work in larger metropolitan areas where the benefits of sharing open data can be realized downstream, but smaller communities will have a harder time justifying the expense. What new open data derived services in a town of 3,000 people will be created that the community values enough to offset the expense?

I live in the Boston area and when the MBTA opened up transit data my commute improved as Google and others stepped in, using tax payer funded data to provide us with useful services based on that data. My experience with the MBTA improved as a result of that investment from my tax dollars. I think my tax dollars are being used wisely. I live in Watertown, Massachusetts (pop. 31,915) and if the town decided to use a vendor like Socrata to provide open data, a very small portion of my property tax dollars would be used to pay for that service. I’ve spent a long time thinking about what services would be created from an Open Data portal in a community of this size and I haven’t been able to think of one that would be worth our tax dollars. When budgets are being trimmed, and it comes down to more teachers or more open data portals, the teachers are going to win and probably should.

My hometown of Millinocket, Maine (pop. 4,506) and Watertown, Massachusetts are probably more like your town than Boston is. Millinocket doesn’t have a public transit system or other large scale services, so it’s harder to explain how Open Government, specifically “Open Data” will help them. When 80% of our towns have fewer than 10,000 people living in them, we should be looking at different models and incentives to get improved municipal information access. Without economic incentives, meaning cost savings — not a new expense, smaller communities will be hard pressed to adopt Open Data tools.

There is another information cost that isn’t often highlighted, I am certainly paying a portion of  a City Clerk’s time when an RFP bid monitoring company from out of state calls my town office and takes 5 minutes to ask for information about new bids. A company that does not pay property taxes in my town. When a fellow citizen emails the Town Manager to ask a budget question it takes time for them to find the information and provide a response. I understand that these examples result in a very tiny portion of my tax bill, but I think it is important to highlight that we’re already paying for data access, it’s just poor quality and inefficient.

So, wait who should pay then?

The Internet is littered with services and software vendors that cost tax payers money, where local government is the customer and our tax dollars help their businesses profit. Code for America references a GovWin report that states $60B will be spent on IT by local and state government in 2013. There is a long list of companies suckling from that wealthy government IT teat. From simple website vendors like CivicPlus, GovOffice and Virtual Town Hall to older established companies like Tyler Technologies, IBM and Microsoft. There are thousands of small mom and pop vendors, mid-tier $5M-$20M companies and fortune 500s that provide solutions for building permitting, parking tickets, accounting and payroll. All of these solutions cost us as tax payers money.

So, you may be wondering how do we get access to municipal information if we’re not paying these companies to provide tools and services? Good question.

Companies like, and eRepublic broker access to municipal information to other companies. They recognized value in the data that our cities and towns generate and spent time and money building up methods to collect this difficult to access information. The Adam and Eve of this approach are Westlaw and Lexis Nexis. I know that there are serious, important discussions taking place about these types of companies and their practice of paywalling access to important documents. To be clear, I believe citizens MUST have access to these documents and information without having to pay a second time. What is important though is that these companies figured out that there are other entities that derive business value from having access to this type of information. What Westlaw, LexisNexis and until only recently JSTOR, couldn’t figure out is how to broker access to data for those that derive business value, while providing access to the public.

To re-appropriate William Gibson’s famous quote “Access to Government data is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

What are we proposing that is different then?

The approach that we promoting at NearbyFYI blends both of these realities, that there are companies that derive value from better government data and that citizens must have access to it. Access to information has a cost, we just want to shift it over to those that benefit financially in a more efficient way. We see a better way to get high quality data into the hands of those companies willing to pay for it by providing better tools and services for our government. We don’t see expensive “Open Data Portals” as being that solution. We’re going to treat the government as a user, not a customer, helping government employees do their jobs more efficiently. We see a wealth of valuable “dark data” in our municipalities, data that other companies will pay to get access to, we just need to give municipalities better tools to provide it.