Amazon announced recently that they would begin hosting huge databases of public information on their servers and charging users only for the cost of computing and storage for their own applications. Although this information is already publicly available, Amazon’s service in hosting the data means scientists, other researchers, and businesses no longer have to create their own infrastructure to store and analyze this data. It’s the data equivalent of a library—where people can do research without having to house and maintain their own collections.
This is an incredible service Amazon is providing, but it did make me wonder, do we need an Andrew Carnegie of public databases for our time? Carnegie, of course, was not a saint, and he imposed terms on the towns that applied for his money, but ultimately, he created the public institution of the public library. Although we now take the idea of a public library for granted, to the point that we’ve let many of them wither away without funding, we’ve come to believe wholeheartedly that public access to information is essential and right. Even the great collections of private universities support this principle; as nonprofit institutions given tax-exempt status, they are governed by their missions to add knowledge to the world and have simple procedures to grant access to people who are not affiliated with the university.
Here, Amazon is providing public access, but as a private company rather than a public institution or nonprofit organization. I’m not saying that nonprofits and government entities are morally superior to private companies, or that private companies are incapable of providing a public service. I actually think that private and public, for-profit and non-profit approaches to different issues is crucial for creating a truly vibrant marketplace of ideas. But given the central and increasingly commanding role of data in our lives, it’s essential that we at least ask ourselves the question, “Are there functions that nonprofits and public institutions could fill better with regards to public access to data, than private companies?
We at the Common Data Project obviously believe there are good reasons to found a nonprofit organization to make data more public and accessible. The number one reason, for me, is that the goal of public access to information may not always jive neatly with the more simple and straightforward goal of profit for a private company.
But what do you think?