Data Sales Fund New State Services
Data Sales Fund New State Services
By Patrick Seitz
Officials in charge of Georgia's World Wide Web home page say the state has been able to provide an array of free online services to the public because of its ongoing practice of selling taxpayer-financed databases to companies.
The GeorgiaNet Authority, the quasi-governmental agency responsible for the state home page, is giving citizens up-to-the-minute traffic reports and other new services via computer, using funds derived from the sale of data to direct marketing firms, insurance companies and other commercial entities.
GeorgiaNet receives no state appropriations and is funded entirely by the sale of the electronic information, such as driver's license and corporation listings, said Tom Bostick, executive director for the Atlanta-based authority. Last year, the authority deposited $14.5 million into the state treasury after paying its own expenses, he said.
Other states are taking or plan to take a similar approach, including Kansas, Indiana, Nebraska and Arkansas. These states will supply free services to educate and inform their citizens, while selling data financed by tax dollars to commercial entities. Data for sale include state statutes and legislative reports, hunting and fishing license listings and even the names of people who have reserved lodges at state parks, officials said.
The practice of selling state databases is not without controversy however, according to attendees at the National Association of State Information Resource Executives annual conference Sept. 29 - Oct. 1 in Williamsburg, Va.
Forrest Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, cautioned that states must avoid the temptation to sell as much data as they can simply to generate revenues. The policy of charging for the use of state databases can interfere with sunshine laws designed to give citizens and the media open access to information about state government operations, he said.
"The problem with user fees is that they are extremely seductive," Landon said.
Education and information dissemination are basic functions of government and the public and the media have a right to have free access to much of this state data, he said. "It will be a shame if we blow this opportunity to embrace this technology," Landon said. State chief information officers "need to be advocates for the use of technology for openness," he said.
Steve Kolodney, director of the Department of Information Services for the state of Washington, said officials need to find a balance between the sale of data to commercial enterprises and what is provided free or at minimal expense to news organizations and the public.
"It seems to me that the people who are using it should pay for it ... otherwise you are perpetuating a subsidy," Kolodney said.
Debra Bowen, assemblywoman in the California State Assembly, said ensuring public access to government information is important both to keep citizens informed and let them feel they are being well-served.
"Public access is what gives people confidence in their government," she said. However, issues of privacy also must be taken into account when selling data, conference attendees said.
In addition to selling bulk data lists, GeorgiaNet also provides specialized pay services through its home page (www.ganet.org). For example, it has a service called Lobbyist-in-a-Box, which allows users to monitor and receive updated status reports on selected bills, Bostick said. About 380 subscribers pay $50 a year for the service, which was started in November 1996 when GeorgiaNet went live, he said.
Another fee-based service in the works will let beer and wine wholesalers monitor current liquor licenses at the Georgia Department of Revenue, Bostick said. That service is expected to be available in 45 to 60 days, he said.
In return for the sale of publicly financed data, Georgia residents get access to a host of new online services, he said. For example, commuters in Atlanta can check real-time traffic patterns online and avoid accidents, highway construction and general gridlock.
The GeorgiaNet home page lets citizens search for legislation, review state laws, get information on agencies, tour state parks and check on registered corporations.
"This is one of the most popular things we have ever done," Bostick said, adding that the Web site has received up to 1.5 million hits a month. "Now the public knows what's going on."