Should governments sell their information?

This fall I’m working for the City of Toronto, doing a strategy and business architecture for Information Management.

I try to give unbiased advice when consulting, but one of my clients knows that I have left-leaning politics.  So we ended up discussing everything from Dave Meslin‘s citizen engagement initiatives to the gay penguins.  More relevantly, should the government sell information (as done for certain specialized but not confidential data), or give it away freely (as in the Open Data program), or recover some costs (as for Freedom of Information requests)?

The price of information is a political question of whether taxpayers or users should pay for a public service.  Although government information is a public asset, it does cost money to collect and prepare it for distribution.  I will be proposing that the City set some criteria for which information should be given away freely, and which should be sold, and how prices should be set.  The public can benefit from government revenue as well as from free information, so a balance needs to be struck.

This is a familiar issue to me, having worked at Statistics Canada.  Their cost recovery policy has been controversial, but researchers continue to use StatsCan information, and basic statistics are still available to everyone for free.