The price of information

Agencies strained for dollars have precious few options for
getting more. One area where costs are rising is in providing public access to agency
data. Under federal policy, agencies for years have charged only the nominal costs of
copying data, either on paper or magnetic media.

But given the tremendous value into which some data gatherers are able to parlay the
raw data, this question should be revisited: Are there circumstances in which the
government can rightly charge more than the nominal cost to copy?

Plenty in government think so. And so do many vendors. One piece of evidence comes from
a two-day retreat for executive program managers and IRMs sponsored by the Program on
Strategic Computing at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

The audience of about 150 federal, state and local government managers and information
technology vendors was asked this question: What is the best price to charge users for
government data? There were three choices: 1) Continue to charge only the marginal costs
of copying; 2) Charge everyone the average cost of collecting the data; and 3) Charge
commercial users a market value for data, and everyone else the copy costs.

Here's how they answered:

Note that a higher percentage of feds than vendors favor more aggressive pricing. This
shows a measure of realism on the vendors' part about the true value of government data.

True, in many instances government data in its raw form is nearly incomprehensible. A
minor industry has sprung around profitably turning that raw data into usable information.
These companies argue that the taxpayers ultimately paid for the data and it should
therefore remain essentially free.

But clearly that data is of far greater inherent value to some taxpayers than to
others. The essential difference among customers is whether they are obtaining the data
for profit or not. Ample precedence exists for having different rates for different types
of users. Trucks pay more highway taxes than cars, for example. It's time to at least
explore the notion of the government receiving value for value.

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