Google Gets a Grip on Government Data

Google is partnering with the states of Arizona, California, Utah and Virginia in a joint effort to make it easier for people to find public information via the Web.

In announcing the arrangements, Google said the deals reflect a recognition that people are often frustrated by the inability of Web search engines, including Google’s, to find supposedly public information available on government sites.

Google conceded “a significant share of the information on state agency Web sites” is not included in the Google index of Web information sources. “As a result, many online government services can be difficult for the public to find,” said Google.

Letting In the Spiders

State Web sites are sketchy when it comes to including public information, and most of them cannot be cataloged automatically by search engines. Technology managers in the four states involved in the deal with Google have increased the amount of information that can be found by search engines.

The extent of the openness remains unclear. The announcement points to several examples, citing “information on education and health services in California” is now more easily attained, as are “leads to records in the Department of Real Estate’s database” of licensed real estate agents in Arizona.

Additionally, Google said job seekers in Utah can now access — via Google instead of just the Utah state Web site — job postings provided by the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

The effort is in line with Google’s vision of organizing and giving access to the world’s information, according to the company’s Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt.

Open Is Good

Reactions to the announcement were mixed. Advocates of open government applauded the effort to ease access to public information, but the excitement is tempered by concern about privacy.

Google seems to be doing both good and not-so-good things, said Patrice McDermott, director of OpentheGovernment.org , a coalition of more than 65 organizations concerned about freedom of information and open government.

“I don’t know exactly what they are doing at the state level, but I know what is happening at the federal level,” she told the E- Commerce Times. “At the federal level, Google is making software technology available to the agencies to do something they’d been required to to for five years: make it possible for search engines to get to the deep stuff not currently available — databases and other records.”

That effort, which Google calls site mapping, “is terrific,” said McDermott. “They are making this technology available to the agencies and our understanding from Google and the agencies is that the result is open and nonproprietary.”

Who Owns the Data?

However, McDermott is less enthused about other efforts by Google, in which the company offers to “digitize” government files and then assumes control over public access to the digitized information, she said.

“They come in and say, ‘You know all that printed stuff and all your stuff on tape and all your photographs that are not digitized? We will take them and digitize them for you, and we’ll make them available on our site for the public to come look at them. Since we are putting all this work into this, we are going to own the metadata,'” said McDermott.

Some universities and government agencies, she said, are “getting run over by Google,” and its offers to digitize. “So, we are very afraid that the agencies are going to be doing deals with what may be the devil,” said McDermott. “It’s wonderful this stuff is going to get digitized, but if the government doesn’t control it and the public can’t go in and use and re-use that information, then it’s a serious problem.”

Although this appears to be a different situation than what is occurring when Google helps states catalog their existing Web data, McDermott said there remain many unanswered questions about what information should be given a Web presence and what should remain a bit more difficult for people to access.

‘Brilliant Idea’

Google’s willingness to help state’s make their Web information more open to search engines is great, Jupiter Research analyst Barry Parr told the E-Commerce Times.

“I think there is absolutely no question this is a brilliant idea,” he said. “I love this idea. It is pitch perfect, and I think it is a tremendous public service. There are lots of privacy issues we have to figure out but the truth is that the information is out there now but only people with lawyers or people willing to do the legwork can get to it.”

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