System sells stats on demand

Stat-USA, the Commerce Department’s fee-funded statistics retailer, has put up an
online newsstand that lets customers buy individual documents through a third-party
transaction service.

“As far as we can tell, we’re the first agency to use this kind of
system,” Stat-USA director Ken Rogers said.

The documents already were available to paying subscribers through the Web site at But Newstand, which opened Dec. 8 at the site, sells individual
documents to nonsubscribers for $1 to $20 apiece.

The Newstand service provided by QPass Inc. of Seattle requires that buyers register
for a free QPass membership and bill charges to credit cards. QPass is adding more content
providers to its system, including other government agencies, said Cornelius Willis, vice
president of sales and marketing.

Stat-USA began operating as a commercial enterprise in 1995, when Commerce took it
off-budget and set up a revolving fund from sales of economic reports,
business-opportunity lists and other trade data.

“The first year, we lost a large amount,” Rogers said. The second year’s
loss was about $12,000.

In the last two years, Stat-USA has taken in significantly more than it has spent and
has replenished the revolving fund, Rogers said.

Today, about 75,000 subscribers each pay Stat-USA $150 per year or $50 per quarter.
They also can buy site licenses. But the pay-per-use model promises to open a
significantly larger market.

A survey two years ago of lapsed Stat-USA subscribers showed many wanted information
only for a limited time or a specific purpose, said Bob Wendling, the marketing director.
Web site visits also showed a sharp drop-off when the visitors encountered the quarterly
or yearly registration process.

“A pay-per-use option is less expensive for these users,” Wendling said.
Economical technology for small, one-time purchases was not available, however, until
QPass approached Stat-USA.

“It would be enormously expensive for us to develop a system like this
in-house,” Rogers said.

QPass officials regard Stat-USA as an ideal content provider because its data is unique
and authoritative. “That is the key to selling a digital product,” Willis said.

A customer registers with QPass in a Secure Sockets Layer session, gives a credit card
number and receives a password. Customer data is maintained on Hewlett-Packard Co. HP 9000
servers running Microsoft Windows NT at a secure service center hosted by Exodus Corp. of

QPass Engine software runs at the content provider’s site to furnish pricing and
rules tied to uniform resource locators. A control station lets the content provider
specify each item’s price.

“That’s our point of integration to the Web site,” Willis said.

Newstand sells documents from Stat-USA’s National Trade Data Bank, Globus and
State of the Nation collections. The Web site servers run Windows NT at Commerce
headquarters, and two dedicated servers run the QPass software.

Software agents produce document descriptions and access document files when customers
request them, passing on the transaction information to QPass for credit card billing.

Users must supply a QPass password the first time they request a document during a
browser session.

QPass retains individual customer information, but content providers can track
commercial activity on a Web site. Within the first week Newstand was open for business,
it sold several thousand dollars’ worth of documents at no more than $20 each.

The QPass system can work with any kind of digital material, from streaming video to
database searches. “Because it all is tied to the URL, it doesn’t matter what
they sell,” Willis said.

Every dollar that comes in is vital to Stat-USA’s survival, but Rogers said that,
despite the attendant risks of operating that way, he is happy with the status as a
fee-based service provider.

“I would not want to go back” to an appropriated budget, he said. “We
have more flexibility. And, let’s face it, it’s fun making money.”  

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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