I tried to sell open government data

I tried to sell open government data, but I won't be the only one.

In 2013 I wrote a series of data journalism articles on the topic of Ontario Public Sector Salary Disclosure. The posts were based on data made available as part of a disclosure initiative in the Canadian province of Ontario. Data was published freely and openly on the Ontario Ministry of Finance website in html and pdf format. I performed a convoluted scraping and processing exercise to build a definitive, unified data set and then performed some analysis in order to identify some interesting headlines.

In late 2013 I was approached by someone who was looking for the data behind my analysis. I agreed to share the data on a few conditions, one of which was non-commercial use that they were unable to meet. And so I offered to sell them the data. Free, open, public data.

Sorry Aleksey. Not going to pay for public data even if private hours went into scraping it.

I knew I had entered a moral landscape with shades of grey on a topic that people would be emotional about.

Government data should be free and open! After all it's our data for us! Well except perhaps in instances where user fees would be a more appropriate measure to spread the cost of data production more proportionally to those who will benefit. And the shades are grey.

My simplest and most direct defense is: My customer knew that the data was freely available, but I still had something to sell them.

Nobody owns the truth, but once they have measured it, processed it, and made it available in a useful format, then they have something that they could sell to you. If I sold you a map based on free government data or delivered you a service based on it, you would accept that.

I wrote about the Data Sins of the Ontario Ministry of Finance – Public Sector Salary Disclosure and Current publishing of Ontario “Sunshine List” not good enough. This data was "open" but not truly "open" and it required considerable effort to process before I could analyse it.


Why I wrote this today rather than continue to procrastinate is that I saw this: Introducing the ProPublica Data Store

For datasets that are the result of significant expenditures of our time and effort, we're charging a reasonable one-time fee: In most cases, it's $200 for journalists and $2,000 for academic researchers. Those wanting to use data commercially should reach out to us to discuss pricing.

And relevantly, they have data sets for sale based on data acquired through the American Freedom of Information Act.