Using Public Lands As An Analogy When Talking About Public Data APIs

I have used the analogy of public lands when talking about access to, and monetization around public data resources, for a number of years. While not a perfect analogy, it provides me with a very tangible, and relatable way to help people understand access to, and the value of public data resources that can often be very abstract and difficult to see. Conveniently, some of the stories about public data, and policy I've worked on in the Federal Government involved public data that was actually about public lands, and more specifically national parks, and other resources in the Recreational Information Database (RIDB).

While discussing this work on a conference call the other day, someone thought that using the analogy of public lands when talking about public data didn't always work because public lands were a limited resource--a national park is only so big. It was not endless like digital data and content can be. I urged them to think beyond just the land, but the elements of the land, and a variety of resources made available via its existence. Things like water, minerals, fish, timber, and other resources that are often very valuable. While not all these resources are endless, some are, and others are renewable if managed properly, sharing many useful considerations for applying to how we manage access to our digital public resources.

I feel like there are many lessons present in applying the public lands analogy to public data. Depending on who you talk to, you will receive different views over ownership and access to public lands in the United States. Similarly, depending on who you talk to, you will receive different views over ownership and access to public data. It is easy to think of digital public assets as infinite, but similar to public lands, this will vary from resource to resource, and in some cases public data could be very limited, involving things like quarterly budgets, executive summaries, and other aggregate views of what is going on--not everything digital is infinitely scalable.

There are other analogies I am exploring when it comes to helping people understand public data, and how we discuss access to these resources. I think public roads, and other infrastructure also offers some interesting potential when it comes to quantifying public data, and its value to commercial interests, as well as to the larger public. I'll keep exploring this concept as I have time, and find ways of helping paint a clearer picture of public data using common physical elements of our world we are all familiar with. I'm looking to develop a robust toolbox of analogies I can use in my storytelling involving public data, and how we make it visible, usable, and even generating vital revenue fo budget-starved public data stewards across city, county, state, and federal government agencies, and the organizations, institutions, and companies that help them in their efforts.