Making Data Accessible
The increased dissemination of government information in obscure electronic formats has worrisome implications for the nation's memory
WELL-INTENTIONED but uninformed decisions are being made each day about disseminating government information in electronic formats. In an effort to save printing costs and to enhance timely, creative promulgation of data and narrative in journals, reports, newsletters, re- leases, research notes, and other documents, the government is issuing more and more of its material in electronic formats. These formats include magnetic tapes, disks, CD-ROMs, on-line data-bases, and electronic bulletin boards. Increasingly, these formats are replacing paper editions altogether. For example, the Daily Treasury Statement and the TOP Bulletin (Trade Opportunities Program) are no longer printed. They appear on the Commerce Department's Economic Bulletin Board. The rationale for electronically disseminating government information seems reasonable, cost-effective, and efficient. The policy makes sense. But it has a blind spot when it comes to the specifics of implementation. The government can and will save money, its money. The real costs - greater than the savings generated by the government - are being passed on to businesses and the public in general. The reason this happens is ignorance of: (1) the totality of uses to which government information is put; (2) the long-term problems associated with the choice of certain formats and information controls used (or not used) in producing the information. When producing or distributing information, one has to understand the following: * Although information is produced for a specific audience - person, contract, agency, or industry - other entities are interested in that information, too, including policymakers, lawyers, scientists, professors, students, competitors, and entrepreneurs. An elusive bulletin board, an uncommon on-line database, a unique and difficult software program for use and analysis, a hard-to-find telephone access number, all these make it difficult and expensive for other users to gain access to the information. The other users are often under contract to search for and utilize that information. At $300 per hour, who wants a lawyer to spend inordinate time finding and using the information? How many companies can afford to hire specialized consultants to utilize an "unfriendly" database? Who wants to subsidize software companies to make friendly an otherwise obscure, government-produced datafile? * Secondary uses and the need for verification of information require good tracking designations. When there are no page numbers, section numbers, line numbers, or table numbers, how does one cite to the newly developed or released information? Can one verify the statistics being presented by consultants at board meetings, by the media, by policymakers, and by scientists? It is not sufficient to make citations that indicate that the information can be found on a particular CD-ROM. Where is the National I nstitute on Standards and Technology when we need it? A new form of printing requires a standard tracking concept. * Choice of electronic format can be crucial because formats are either liberating or constricting to a user. For example, most economists do not need complete economic reports for forecasting or analysis. They do need, however, line items from specific government releases. The Commerce Department has chosen an electronic bulletin board for producing and disseminating a large number of economic reports. Because of this bulletin board format, an economist must download or print an entire report, reformat it and read it, find the proper line item, and use it. Had the Commerce Department created the information using an on-line database format, the economist could conceivably pick out desired line items and not have to bother using an entire document, plus the requisite time and effort - and money. * Indexing and storing information for the future should be a paramount concern for policymakers. Trends, movements, and cycles are the stuff of useful analysis and learning. The government is not simply doing its own work. It is engaged in compiling records for businessmen, scientists, doctors, and many others to guide their way through current uncharted risks based on previous experience. Continuity of statistical data and maintenance of clearly indicated methodology are hallmarks of good government pr actice. If one cannot recognize or find the information upon which previous decisionmaking was based, the future becomes all the more uncertain and treacherous. Simply because the press of a button can make a new revision to a publication is not reason enough to dispose of the original. How many missed economic opportunities could have been realized? How many jobs could have been saved? All for the want of old information, readily available. TO date, most agencies of government have been left to find their own way through the possibilities of economic savings that electronic environments provide. But the bottom line for an agency can result in a bloated line for the public. Our information policy is not coherent. It tends toward shortsightedness. There are proposals before Congress for further disseminating vital, useful, profitmaking, and enlightening information. Yet the real concern should not be what can be done with electronic publicati on, but why is it being done? Who really gains? Where are the costs going? A proper policy implemented without the proper questions is a policy doomed to fail. An old song goes, "It's not what you do, it's the way that you do it. That's what gets results!" The point of public and information policy is to seek the best results with an eye to the long-term benefit of all. Short-term cost benefits may cost us our future.