I have blogged frequently about the world-wide trend toward free and open access to government spatial data. In general this has meant that instead of users paying for access to spatial data, the government pays for the infrastructure to support open data sites like data.gov in the U.S. The expenditure is justified because governments see transparency as a key responsibilty and by the positive contribution to the national GDP that open access to spatial data can generate as studies in Australia and New Zealand have shown.
But it is an interesting question whether this model can continue on the future. In the first place governments have limited funds that are increasingly being directed to social programs and away from capital infrastructure projects. Secondly, the private sector is generally seen as much more efficient than government. For example, in the civil infrastructure sector this means increasingly governments are looking to private public partnerships to fund public infrastructure including roads and water and wastewater.
In an article in Science entitled Who will pay for public access to research data Francine Berman and Vint Cerf raise a very important question specifically for research data, but that is relevant to public access to all types of open data.
On 22 February, the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a memo calling for public access for publications and data resulting from federally sponsored research grants (1). The memo directed federal agencies with more than $100 million R&D expenditures to “develop a plan to support increased public access to the results of research funded by the Federal Government.” Perhaps even more succinctly, a subsequent New York Times opinion page sported the headline “We Paid for the Research, So Let's See It” (2). So who pays for data infrastructure?
There are several options. The government could allocate funding specifically of this. The government could mandate that this has to be done with existing funds which would mean reallocating funds that would otherwise have gone to research and innovation. The private sector could take this on and perhaps generate advertising revenue ala Google. Apparently in early 2008, Google announced that it would begin to support open-source scientific data sets, but by the end of the year, the project was shut down for business reasons. The authors even suggested paying for access to the data the same way that iTunes does for access to music. They suggest that private sector models will not solve the whole problem but could help provide some infrastructure support necessary for access to and preservation of research data. In this vein they make interesting recommendations that focus on a combination of the private and public sector.
- Facilitate private-sector stewardship of public access to research data
- Use public-sector investment to jumpstart sustainable stewardship solutions in other sectors
- Create and clarify public-sector stewardship commitments for public access to research data
- Encourage research culture change to take advantage of what works in the private sector