The state has long been the biggest generator, collector and user of data. It keeps records on every birth, marriage and death, compiles figures on all aspects of the economy and keeps statistics on licences, laws and the weather. Yet until recently all these data have been locked tight. Even when publicly accessible they were hard to find, and aggregating lots of printed information is notoriously difficult.
But now citizens and non-governmental organisations the world over are pressing to get access to public data at the national, state and municipal level—and sometimes government officials enthusiastically support them. “Government information is a form of infrastructure, no less important to our modern life than our roads, electrical grid or water systems,” says Carl Malamud, the boss of a group called http://Public.Resource.Org that puts government data online.