Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

When Does a Public Data Good Become a Private Data Resource?

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

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Seeing the Wikipedia entry List of public domain resources behind a paywall got me thinking about the different approaches being put in place for obtaining public access to government generated data. The Wikipedia article seems to be saying without actually saying it, “Look, here are public domain sources you have to pay for!”

Is this evidence that the long ranging debate about public versus private sector roles in providing access to public domain information has never been totally resolved? I think so.

Today we see government policy and programs to make government data publicly accessible under constant development, as demonstrated by the activities covered at last week’s Data Transparency 2013 conference. We are seeing many opportunities for government agencies to provide data online “for free” to Internet users. Opportunities also exist where that same information can be “republished” online either in its original form, transformed somehow, or “mashed up” with data from other sources. Sometimes these additional sources are “free.” At other times they might exist behind a paywall.

I put “free” inside quotes since the term is so complex. Don Pettis of CBC News summarizes the basic issues nicely in his article The problem with pay walls, from December 2012:

Whether something is free to you depends on whether [they] can find somebody else to stick for the grocery bill.

In the case of the data files you see on, the person usually responsible for the “grocery bill” is the U.S. taxpayer. Yet, what prevents someone from coming in, downloading data files from, processing them in a special or proprietary way, and selling the results?

As we saw and heard at Data Transparency 2013 that’s what some people want to happen.

While wearing my private sector hat I see nothing wrong with such arrangements. Government provides raw data online quote “for free” along with analysis tools and APIs for further processing. It’s an amazing resource. This resource can then be used by the private sector to develop, support, and “add value” to information products, thereby generating both revenue and employment opportunities.

What could possibly go wrong? What if someone were to complain that he or she should not be required to pay for access to data already paid for by the taxpayer? It happens.

One reason arguments are raised periodically in the United States about charging for data that originated with taxpayer funding is that we all can’t agree on what the role of government should be. This never-ending debate is influenced by factors such as religion, ideology, politics and — not to be underestimated — by whether or not it’s possible to find someone else “… to stick with the grocery bill.”

It’s an old debate. This is what I wrote back in 1982 in a review chapter titled “Public Sector/Private Sector Interaction in Information Services” in volume 17 of the Annual Review of Information Science and Technology:

Although it may be tempting to reduce arguments about the appropriate role of the federal government to catch phrases such as “preserve public access” or “preserve free enterprise,” the debate is not really about information per se but about the appropriate role of the federal government in general. As such the argument can never be resolved to the complete satisfaction of all interested parties since the US political system forces the constant public reevaluation of the performance of government, including its impact on the private sector and the economy. Therefore, disagreements about the role of the federal government in information services will continue as long as there is debate about the federal government’s responsibilities for national and international economic policy, social welfare and justice, and international defense continue.

Since then we have seen the rise of the Internet and changing intellectual property business models where expectations about and the meaning of “free” have undergone great change. It may be that the greatest challenge facing private entrepreneurs in developing new and valuable information products and services based at least partially on public data will be public resistance to paying for information, no matter how new, innovative, or unique these products or services are.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald. Dennis is a Washington DC area consultant specializing in project management, digital strategy, and technology adoption. He has been involved with data collection, management, and analysis projects involving survey and statistical data, demographics, text and image retrieval, database conversion and consolidation, customer support, controlled vocabularies and full text, financial data systems, industrial & manufacturing systems, and social media metrics. His clients have included General Electric, Ford, American International Group, Whirlpool, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Jive Software, the National Library of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, Social Media Today and Oracle, and the World Bank Group. Contact Dennis via email at or by phone at 703-402-7382. His website is here: /

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