James Boyle: The Value of “Free” Information

Public information wants to be free [via Copyfight]

Take weather data. The United States makes complete weather data available to anyone at the cost of reproduction. If the superb government websites and data feeds aren’t enough, for the price of a box of blank DVD’s you can have the entire history of weather records across the continental US. European countries, by contrast, typically claim government copyright over weather data and often require the payment of substantial fees. Which approach is better? If I had to suggest one article on this subject it would be the magisterial study by Peter Weiss called “Borders in Cyberspace,” published by the National Academies of Science. Weiss suggests that the US approach generates far more social wealth. True, the information is initially provided for free, but a thriving private weather industry has sprung up which takes the publicly funded data as its raw material and then adds value to it. The US weather risk management industry, for example, is ten times bigger than the European one, employing more people, producing more valuable products, generating more social wealth. Another study estimates that Europe invests €9.5bn in weather data and gets approximately €68bn back in economic value – in everything from more efficient farming and construction decisions, to better holiday planning – a 7-fold multiplier. The United States, by contrast invests twice as much – €19bn – but gets back a return of €750bn, a 39-fold multiplier. Other studies suggest similar patterns in areas ranging from geo-spatial data to traffic patterns and agriculture. “Free” information flow is better at priming the pump of economic activity.

Some readers may not thrill to this way of looking at things because it smacks of private corporations getting a “free ride” on the public purse – social wealth be damned. But the benefits of open data policies go further.

The National Academies does have a WWW page on the Committee on Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services, but I can’t find the NAS publication to which Prof Boyle refers. Note that Peter Weiss seems to have been writing on this theme for some time. Some examples: