Posted by: structureofnews | March 18, 2012

Regulating Data

Yale Law School held an interesting day-long conference on data journalism about a week ago; there were fascinating talks by a range of people, including game designer Simon Ferrari and graphics mavens Amanda Cox and Hannah Fairfield, not to mention hilarious presentations by data journalists Brian Boyer and Matt Stiles.  Plus two powerpoint references to Battlestar Galactica, which must be a conference record of some kind.

But perhaps the most interesting points raised were by Steven Waldman, the founder and former editor of BeliefNet, at one point one of the best sites on religion, and now an adviser to the FCC, where he authored a report on “The Information Needs of Communities” (I’m still reading it.) He talked about the need to update FOIA laws in a digital age, and how there needed to be more advocacy to push such changes ahead.  After all, if data journalism is dependent on data, then it’s critical how data is regulated and how available it is.

And beyond government data – over which there are already daily battles about how information should be released – what about other organizations that have or collect data that’s been mandated to be public?  Why, he asked, do TV stations only make data on political advertising with them available only if you show up in person at the station?  Shouldn’t organizations that are part of the news/information ecosystem make more of an effort to make public data that they have more easily available to the public?  Or should they be made to do so, by a more-updated law?

To be sure, there’s a danger of too much regulation of data – about what can and can’t be gathered or analyzed.  But he makes a compelling proposal as well, about  trading off between transparency and regulation – if organizations make data more easily and publicly available, perhaps then there’s less need to regulate them.  The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, makes public companies disclose loads of information; it may be hard to find nuggets in the flood of stuff that comes out (often intentionally), but at least it’s there.  As tradeoffs go, that may not be so bad.

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