9. Government Information

The United States has (depending on your point of view) reveled or wallowed for forty years in the widespread availability of most government information, under the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), first passed in 1966. After 9/11 a considerable amount of information was withdrawn in the name of national security. Some of this made sense, some was silly (New York State withdrew all its websites from the Internet Archive, including the site that lists the winning lottery numbers).

One reference on this is a National Archives report "Audit of the Withdrawal of Records from Public Access at the National Archives and Records Administration for Classification Purposes." Another is an article specifically about geographic information, How Homeland Security Affects Spatial Information, by Linda Zellner.

But the best summary of the situation I noticed in a quick survey was a lecture in somebody else's class: see William Robinson's class at the University of Tennessee. It seems to touch on a great many issues (more than I will try to get to in one lecture).

And by the way, it's not just about the United States or about 9/11: see Revealed: secret locations we knew about anyway by David Leigh in the Guardian for August 7, 2006.

So how would you decide what government information should be public and what shouldn't be? Try to propose a policy. Remember that government information includes:

  • The (possible) location of ivory-billed woodpecker nests.
  • The location of the pumping stations for the New York City water supply.
  • The schedule of the trains carrying nuclear bombs to the Rocky Flats Arsenal for disassembly.
  • High-quality aerial photography of Dick Cheney's house.
  • Details of new drug tests, including the names of the people on whom the drugs were tested.
  • All research proposals to the National Science Foundation (or any other agency). And, of course, lots more.

    This is a remarkable exercise in this class in that it's only minimally involved with economics. Next week that will be fixed.

    Please note: I am not asking you to write out an answer to the question about whether the government should use contractors!