Does your Government (and thus you) actually own its data?

For those who missed it, there was fascinating legal analysis of Public Engines, Inc. effort to sue ReportSee, Inc. the other day on the Berkman centre’s Citizen Media Law Project blog.

If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to take a look. It’s more than a legal brief. It is a cautionary tale for every government official.

Why is this?

The story is as such. Public Engines Inc is paid by police departments to collect and analyze their crime data. Given this privileged position Public Engines strips the data of privacy related information and, through a service called, it allows citizens to see maps of it and so forth.

The problem is, this isn’t actually open data. As I argue in the three laws of open data (and the good folks at Berkman seem to share my sense of humour) crime data for cities that contract with Public Engines Inc isn’t open. You can look at the data, but you can’t touch it. Worst still… don’t even think about playing with it (unless you are doing so ON website, in a way that their license lets you – its all quite constraining stuff).

And herein lies Reportsee Inc’s big mistake. It scraped this data from and offered it up in a competing manner.

The legal analysis on the post is very much worth reading. At the end of the day, everyone is behaving rationally. Public Engine Inc is trying to protect its monopoly on crime data, and the investment it has made in cleaning it up of private information. Reportsee is simply trying to access what is public data the only place where – in many instances – it appears to be being made available.

The real party to blame here are governments that signed this agreements and that don’t understand that data is both a strategic and public asset. Understandably the smart people at Berkman understood this and jumped all over it:

The bottom line is that this sort of dispute could be avoided if government agencies are more proactive and farsighted when negotiating terms with third-party providers of data management services. In particular, government agencies should maintain control over the resulting data, or at a minimum, require that the contractor permit a wide range of uses of the data. It’s not just in the public interest of promoting government transparency and accountability. It’s also in the agencies’ interest to streamline its public records requests. The agencies are already paying for the data management services anyway, why spend even more government resources in order to respond to redundant public records requests?

Indeed, the post notes that:

…that government agencies often pay third parties to collect, compile and maintain public records data in useful formats, and who may retain rights over the data. This isn’t the first time a third-party data contractor has stepped in the way of a commercial use of data feeds. In the Bay Area a few years ago, Routsey’s iPhone app making use of data feeds with bus and train arrival times got in a jam when the contractor providing the data to MUNI, the public transportation agency, asserted its rights to the data.

So, if you are a government official, this is the critical lesson. Many vendors know that if they control the data, they control you. They’ve got you locked into to buying their software and possible even locked in to buying their consulting services. More importantly, they now have a monopoly over what the public can learn about services and information their tax dollars paid to deliver and collect. No government would ever allow the New York Times or the Globe and Mail to become the exclusive distributor of government information. And yet, everyday, governments sign contracts with software vendors that effectively does just this but with something more basic than information, the raw data. Frightening enough stuff for governments. Still more frightening for us citizens.

Also, having heard tale after tale of government legal offices fighting open data initiatives, I’m reminded of how I wish some government lawyers would take the time they spend preventing the public from accessing public data and reallocate it towards preventing publicly funded data from becoming the monopoly assets of private vendors.

7 thoughts on “Does your Government (and thus you) actually own its data?

  1. Bryan Clark

    We need a set of creative commons licensing for governments to use. A similar set of types in relation to how you’ve described data needs to be made more available as a public resource. Or perhaps governments should just require data be available with some level of CC license.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Does your Government (and thus you) actually own its data? | --

  3. Pingback: DBast sent a factual edit. | Editz

  4. Rufus Pollock

    David, I just read this post *and* your post from a year ago regarding the ‘The Three Laws of Open Government Data’. In terms of defining open (government) data I believe we can just apply the ‘freedom to use, reuse and redistibute’ mantra of — I don’t think there is anything specific to government data on the openness front (though I note for simplicity of linkg there is government specific page at

    @Bryan: I’d be worried about just saying ‘some CC license’. Some CC licenses are open others aren’t (see I completely agree with you though that we want to have a good set of agreed ‘open’ licenses that we can then recommend people use.

  5. Pingback: Legal issues remain crucial | Stop

  6. Pingback: AS PRESENTED: Letter to Council about crime mapping data |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.