Wearing My Tech Vendor Hat When It Comes To Public Data

This is a multipart story on monetizing public data using APIs. I have spent the last seven years studying over 75+ aspects of the API delivery lifecycle across companies, organizations, institutions, and government agencies. This project is designed to be a distillation of my work to help drive a conversation around sensible and pragmatic revenue generation using public data--allowing the city, county, state, and federal government agencies to think critically about how open data efforts can exist and grow. It lives as a standalone repository, as well as individual stories that are meant to stand on their own, while also contributing to an overall narrative about public data monetization.

While my primary income is not derived from developing software for sale, I have developed commercial software throughout my career, and actively maintain my own API driven technology platform for tracking on the API industry. This is my best attempt to put on my technology vendor hat on for a bit to better understand the concerns and perspective of the software vendors involved with the public data sector. There is a wide spectrum of technology vendors servicing the space, making this exercise difficult to generalize, but I wanted to take a shot at defending and jumpstarting the conversation at the commercial vendor level.

Commercial tech vendors are always at the frontline of discussion around monetization of public data, for better or worse. When open data activists push back on my work to understand how public data can be monetized, the most common response I have is that public data is already being monetized by commercial vendors, and my work is about shining a light on this, and not being in denial that it is already occurring everywhere. Here are some of my thoughts from the public data commercial vendor landscape:

  • Investment In Data - As a technology company I am investing a significant amount of resources into our data, and the data of our customers. While views may greatly vary on how much ownership platform and technology operators have around the public data they touch, it can't be argued that commercial vendors play a significant role--the discussion should be more about how great of a role, and how much ownership is there.
  • Investment in Software - Beyond the data, we are investing a significant amount of resources into software, that our customers use, and we use to manage our business internally. This is where we will keep most of the proprietary value generated around public data, although the door around the availability of open source tooling needs to remain open. Similar to data, the question is about how much ownership over software do I need as a commercial vendor and how much can I give back to the community.
  • Lead Generation - I am interested in generating leads for new customers, and joining in new conversations that demonstrate the value of the products and services that my company brings to the table.
  • Sell My Services - I am interested in selling my products and services, and my motivation is going to reflect this. No matter what our mission or marketing may say, I'm interested in generating a profit for my company, and its interests.
  • Premium Services - Our domain expertise, and investment in data and software opens up the opportunity for us to offer premium services on top of public data operations. While our customers may not always pay directly for data storage and management, or even software licenses, the ability to sell premium services is valuable to everyone involved.
  • Protect Intellectual Property - It is important to us that our intellectual property is protected in all conversations, and that the licensing of data and software is respected, and reflected in our partnerships. While perspectives on what is appropriate regarding intellectual property will vary, it is important that IP Is always an up-front part of the conversation.
  • Investment in R&D - Commercial vendors are more likely to invest in research and development, helping push forward innovation around public data, something that isn't always possible unless there are clear revenue opportunities for commercial operators and clear communication and understanding with non-commercial stakeholders about what is possible, and being done.
  • Consistent Support - One important thing commercial vendors bring to the table for government agencies, and non-commercial stakeholders are the opportunity for consistent support. As seasons change in government, commercial vendors can be there to fill gaps in business and technical support services, keeping important conversations moving forward.

I have to be 100% transparent here and stop to say that while I am advocating for revenue generation around public data, I'm not always a proponent of that revenue benefitting commercial interests. First, and foremost, I want revenue to benefit the public, secondarily the non-commercial stakeholders, then thirdly for the benefit commercial vendors. Making this argument from the commercial vendor perspective is possible for me, just not something I'm always going to be in full support of, and I will always insist on pushing back on aggressive behavior from commercial vendors to dominate the conversation, in favor of data stewards, and the public.

With that said, I'm a believer that commercial activity can benefit public data efforts. Sensible revenue can be generated from delivering services, products, and tooling developed around public data, while also investing back into data operators, owners, and stewards, and most importantly benefit those being served. Depending on where you operate in the public data space you will see this argument, or hopefully conversation, differently. This is just an attempt to look at things from the side of commercial vendors, and being honest and transparent about what the commercial interests are when it comes to public data.

You can keep an eye on my public data monetization research via a separate site--I will be adding each segment here on the blog, as well as the individual project website. You can participate via the Github repository I am using to manage all my work in this area.