Government Data and the Invisible Hand

The guys over at Princeton’s new Center for Information Technology Policy wrote a really great paper for the Yale Journal of Law & Technology on the role data should have, compared to websites, in government. It articulates a point that I think many of us subconsciously have had in mind:

“The new administration should specify that the federal government’s primary objective as an online publisher is to provide data that is easy for others to reuse, rather than to help citizens use the data in one particular way or another.”

And they suggest an interesting way to push that forward:

“The policy route to realizing this principle is to require that federal government websites retrieve the underlying data using the same infrastructure that they have made available to the public. Such a rule incentivizes government bodies to keep this infrastructure in good working order, and ensures that private parties will have no less an opportunity to use public data than the government itself does. The rule prevents the situation, sadly typical of government websites today, in which governmental interest in presenting data in a particular fashion distracts from, and thereby impedes, the provision of data to users for their own purposes.”

I think this is a worthwhile addition to the opengovdata and publicmarkup.org policy documents — if not as a direct recommendation (because I think it may be too much to ask for in a grand form) then noted as a long-term goal or (in terms of the second paragraph I quoted) as a benchmark, a concrete way to tell whether data is open.

The full citation is: Robinson, David, Yu, Harlan, Zeller, William P and Felten, Edward W, “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” (2008). Yale Journal of Law & Technology, Vol. 11, 2008

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