Follow Us

Selling Free Data

by

It wasn't too long ago that I talked about how hard it is to create a business on open data. So it's probably worthwhile to talk about an open data business that popped up shortly after that post: CQ's First Street. As this writeup mentions, it's just one of a bunch of new services that are launching around business intelligence in the government space -- Bloomberg and Politico are also creating subscription offerings designed to help lobbyists and contractors achieve more success.

But what are these services selling? An awful lot of it is already free. Contact info for legislators or their staff. Lobbyist registrations. Legislative info. Campaign finance information. Data about grant and contract spending.

I've linked to Sunlight projects, but of course there are many other great services who offer this kind of data gratis. So if this stuff is free, why are people paying for it?

Well, obviously these services are offering some added value. First and foremost there's the aggregation function: collecting the data into a usefully centralized interface is the core of these products. In some cases they add value by offering data that can't be gotten anywhere else: original reporting, or cleaned or otherwise improved versions of the data (for instance, Bloomberg bought Eagle Eye, which scrubs USASpending data; and Sunlight's staff directory is created from expenditure reports, not the canonical, non-digital staff directories available on the hill). Finally, and not insignificantly, these services have brands and sales staff that help them find paying customers.

I think it's safe to say that helping lobbyists more effectively manipulate congress is not the use of open data that we at Sunlight are most excited about. But we really are glad to see these businesses evolve and succeed: they help create demand for better data offerings (and their staff members often turn out to be the kinds of folks we get along with at conferences).

Still, this is an area where the underlying data is basically available to anyone. Any developer can try their hand at making a better, cheaper service. I don't know if this particular market will be large enough (or free enough from the principal agent problem) to turn into the hyper-competitive race to the bottom that it could be. But I do know that the data you can get for free is going to keep improving -- we're doing our best to make sure of it.