Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Government Data and the Invisible Hand

This is a draft of an article that will appear in the Yale Journal of Law and Technology in Fall 2008. (it kindly asks us not to cite the draft, but - since it's out there for everyone to read - I assume a little quoting in a blog post like this is in order) The article argues that federal agencies should stop dabbling in webmastery, and leave to the pros the important job of providing government information to the people. The authors make some very resonant points; e.g., "Today government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use...It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility." This reminds me, with a piercing scream, of our age-old pleas for re-purposable information. The authors also argue that "the federal government has shown itself consistently unable to keep pace with the fast-evolving power of the Internet" - couldn't help thinking wistfully of bleeding edge technology like the Google toolbar when I read that. And a third point - and I don't think any article has ever made me nod furiously and smile grimly quite so much - is that "an online compliance checklist for designers of government websites identifies no fewer than 24 different regulatory regimes with which all public government web sites must comply...But the stultifying cumulative effect of these rules has not been, and probably would not be, endorsed by anyone." (a bit of touching naivete there...) And finally, "as long as government has a special role in the presentation and formatting of raw government data, certain desirable limits on what the government can do become undesirable limits on how the data can be presented or handled." Yes! And, I would add, "retrieved." The authors are David Robinson, Harlan Yu, William Zeller, and Edward W. Felten of Princeton University. God preserve them.

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