Democratizing the Data Banks: Getting Government Online

The advent of online access to large-scale information systems from personal computers and telephones has radically altered many everyday activities, from using a credit card to making an airline reservation. The same technology may now change the relation of citizens to the state, if advocates of an electronic gateway to government data banks succeed in establishing a new principle of democratic access, not simply to government information, but to government information systems.

The federal government is the single most important sponsor of research and producer of data in American society. Its statistical databases, reports, and technical studies, as well as the multifarious documents from its several branches and independent agencies, are crucial to interest groups and businesses of all kinds. Corporate strategy-making, scientific research, community planning, and perhaps most important of all, public debate depend on a reliable and abundant flow of data gathered by the government.

Traditionally, the government has made this information available through printed publications, a method that is inevitably slow and typically leaves the underlying raw data inaccessible. In recent decades, federal agencies such as the Census Bureau have also provided computer tapes to private information companies that customize and retail the data for a variety of purposes. And, within the past decade, the government has developed computerized information systems for government agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission. Some of these have been developed and operated by private firms.

The information in government databases owes its very existence, of course, to taxpayer support. In principle, the databases belong to the public. But, in practice, much governmental data released to the public is accessible only through private vendors that charge hefty fees.

Advocacy groups for the information-indigent, which includes just about anyone without a big expense account, have long urged government to make its databases accessible online at low cost. After years of strenuous opposition from private information firms, that finally may happen.

The Electronic WINDO
Under a bill introduced by Representative Charlie Rose of North Carolina, the Government Printing Office would make "appropriate" online services available to anybody who wished to open an account. The mechanism would be a new service, the Wide Information Network for Data Online, known as the WINDO. Under the legislation, the GPO would also develop user-friendly menus, indexes, and other methods to make government information systems convenient and simple to use.

To broaden public access, the on-line service would be free to 1,400 federal depository libraries. Since such libraries are open to any citizen, their terminals would enable Americans to tap into the government's data banks at no cost. In addition, the service would be available to individuals, institutions, and businesses, by subscription, priced at the "incremental cost of dissemination."

The legislation does not spell out just what databases the program would include. Rather, it would require the government to solicit public comment annually on that and other issues like pricing and format, and then set policy accordingly. Ideally, the WINDO would start with a core of important online services and expand to accommodate the interests of users as the system matured. Over the long run, the government would strive to provide online access to as much federal information as possible, limited only by technological and economic feasibility.

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While it may take ten to twenty years to realize the WINDO's full potential, many Americans would see its effects almost immediately. The first project in the WINDO program would most likely be the creation of an electronic bulletin board service, which would provide wide, affordable access to a variety of agency notices, decisions, and statistics. These items are indispensable to many businesses, research institutions, and individuals, yet often are available today only through costly commercial services.

For instance, the Food and Drug Administration produces an impressive array of electronic information, which includes everything from lists of approved drugs and devices to current information on AIDS. Access to this information is now available only through a bulletin board run by DIALCOM, a former ITT subsidiary owned by British Telecom. The charge is $25 to $15 per hour for connect time, plus $.20 per kilobyte of data and a $50 monthly minimum billing.

Similarly, the State Department publishes its news releases, congressional testimony, daily schedules, and press briefings on a commercial electronic bulletin board run by the Martin Marietta Corporation, which charges $1 per page of data, and requires $75 per month in minimum billing.

The possibilities for expanded and cheaper access are evident from the Department of Commerce's experience with online information. For several years, the Commerce Department has operated an Economic Bulletin Board, which offers access to more than 1,000 files posted by fifteen different federal agencies. The information includes everything from trade opportunities in Kuwait to the latest figures for the national debt. The fees, as low as $3 per hour for connect time, with no data charges or monthly minimum, are trivial in comparison to prevailing commercial rates. With the WINDO, such easy access would become the rule, not the exception.

The WINDO would eliminate the need for users to maintain dozens of different accounts with individual government agencies and private companies. As it became more familiar, the public would likely expand its use of the service. And with the WINDO the federal government could publish congressional hearings and other documents for the public through electronic formats, at a fraction of the cost for conventional printing and binding.

What the WINDO Would Open
For scholarly researchers as well as businesses and local governments, one of the most important services available through the WINDO would be on-line search and retrieval of research abstracts. The government already spends millions to create computer databases of abstracts of research on medicine, education, housing, and hundreds of other topics, from both publicly and privately funded studies. The government collects and stores these data in standardized record formats, but often only disseminates the information on magnetic tapes, so that for most citizens the information is accessible only through commercial vendors at high prices. This information includes databases that report published research, such as MEDUNE, AGRI-COLA, and DOE Energy, as well as databases that summarize the results from thousands of unpublished government-funded research projects, such as the National Technology and Information Service Research Abstracts. The WINDO would simply allow the public to take advantage of these resources.

Another technologically straightforward project for the WINDO would be to open access to online systems set up for use by government employees. These include the Securities and Exchange Commission's new EDGAR database system for corporate disclosure filings; the Patent and Trademark Office's Automated Patent System of U.S. and foreign patents; the electronic reference collections of the Library of Congress that are available through its SCORPIO system; the Department of Justice's JURIS database of federal court decisions, statutes, regulations, foreign treaties, presidential executive orders, and legislative histories; and the House of Representatives' LEGIS system for tracking legislation.

As technologies improve, more projects will be possible. New telecommunications systems will transmit several megabytes of data per second, expanding the kinds of information obtainable online. New software standards will make it possible to send text and images across different hardware and software platforms, greatly enhancing the potential for electronic publishing. One can easily imagine, for example, ordering the Statistical Abstract of the United States online, to be delivered in seconds.

A Political Opening?
Calls for more convenient, affordable access to government information are hardly new. In fact, the effort to have the government provide at low cost what the information industry sells at high fees is an old fight. It is a measure of the political clout of commercial vendors that there has never been a formal proposal to provide centralized online access to federal information until now.

But the climate may be changing. When groups such as the American Library Association and Ralph Nader's Center for Study of Responsive Law proposed the WINDO in the fall of 1990, many experienced observers dismissed it as too ambitious to be taken seriously. (Full disclosure: I work for Nader's center and was involved in developing the proposal.) However, the prospect of more affordable information appeals to many groups, including businesses. After paying for this information once through our taxes, paying for it again is not appealing.

An impressive sign of the changing political climate is a recent report from the Government Printing Office proposing, for the first time, that it take on a large role in online publishing. Thanks to the WINDO, the GPO was able to present its alternative as more conservative, since it calls for a more modest scope of services and no free access at federal depository libraries. Even with these limitations, the report signals the administration's acceptance of the basic goals of the WINDO.

Many Americans express frustration over their contacts with government agencies, which seem slow and unresponsive by comparison with many private firms. Making governmental services electronically accessible is a step toward making the public sector itself more user-friendly. Ironically, the private information industry has developed a stake in perpetuating technological incompetence and obsolescence in government. Only by overcoming that private barrier can we get public agencies fully into the computer era.

Nobody underestimates the political opposition from commercial information vendors. But with the active support of groups that benefit from expanded access to government data, the advocates of the WINDO may be able to prevail.

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