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The Market For Government Data Heats Up

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Those interested in the business potential of government data will definitely want to check out Washingtonian's story about Bloomberg Government. It's a good introduction to what really does seem to be the D.C. media landscape's newest 800 lb. gorilla (albeit a very quiet and well-behaved one so far).

Readers of this site will probably be most intrigued by these two pragraphs:

[...] BGov subscribers, of whom there are currently fewer than 2,000 individuals, get something potentially more valuable than news. BGov’s “killer app”—the feature that sets it so far apart from its competition that prospective customers will feel compelled to buy it—is a database that lets users track how much money US government agencies spend on contracts, something no other media organization in Washington offers. Users can break down the spending by agency, company, amount, or congressional district; they can track the money over time; and with a single mouse click, they can call up news associated with the companies and the type of work they do. They can also see which contractors are giving money to elected officials.

All that information is extraordinarily hard to gather, largely because the government doesn’t store it in one place. But when it’s collected, and explained by journalists, the data has the potential to give businesses an inside track on winning government deals. It shows where spending trends are heading and thus where the next business opportunity lies.

Data quality problems aside, this is true as far as it goes -- I've seen a demo of the BGov interface, and it really is quite impressive. But in fact the data isn't that spread out. Between Sunlight's APIs, bulk data from USASpending.gov, GIS data from Census and the admittedly hard-to-scrape Regulations.gov, any startup with enough time and technical talent could replicate the majority of the site's functionality (the business intelligence data provided by Bloomberg Financial is an admittedly tougher nut to crack). That's the great thing about public sector information: it's there for the taking. Anyone can use it.

I've written about this before, and generally argued that government data is a tough thing to create a business around because there's no way to prevent competitors from undercutting you. But there's money to be made in the undercutting. Mike Bloomberg thinks it's worthwhile to bet $100 million on reselling government data. He's made some pretty good business decisions in the past. A smart startup might want to take the hint.

(Of course, nobody will be building businesses on this data if it goes offline -- please don't forget to support our work to save the data)

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