Entrepreneurs Shape Free Data Into Money

Angus Loten in the Wall Street Journal: “More cities are putting information on everything from street-cleaning schedules to police-response times and restaurant inspection reports in the public domain, in the hope that people will find a way to make money off the data.

Supporters of such programs often see them as a local economic stimulus plan, allowing software developers and entrepreneurs in cities ranging from San Francisco to South Bend, Ind., to New York, to build new businesses based on the information they get from government websites.

When Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an executive directive last month to launch the city’s open-data program, he cited entrepreneurs and businesses as important beneficiaries. Open-data promotes innovation and “gives companies, individuals, and nonprofit organizations the opportunity to leverage one of government’s greatest assets: public information,” according to the Dec. 18 directive.

A poster child for the movement might be 34-year-old Matt Ehrlichman of Seattle, who last year built an online business in part using Seattle work permits, professional licenses and other home-construction information gathered up by the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

While his website is free, his business, called Porch.com, has more than 80 employees and charges a $35 monthly fee to industry professionals who want to boost the visibility of their projects on the site.

The site gathers raw public data—such as addresses for homes under renovation, what they are doing, who is doing the work and how much they are charging—and combines it with photos and other information from industry professionals and homeowners. It then creates a searchable database for users to compare ideas and costs for projects near their own neighborhood.

…Ian Kalin, director of open-data services at Socrata, a Seattle-based software firm that makes the back-end applications for many of these government open-data sites, says he’s worked with hundreds of companies that were formed around open data.

Among them is Climate Corp., a San Francisco-based firm that collects weather and yield-forecasting data to help farmers decide when and where to plant crops. Launched in 2006, the firm was acquired in October by Monsanto Co. MON -2.90% , the seed-company giant, for $930 million.

Overall, the rate of new business formation declined nationally between 2006 and 2010. But according to the latest data from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, an entrepreneurship advocacy group in Kansas City, Mo., the rate of new business formation in Seattle in 2011 rose 9.41% in 2011, compared with the national average of 3.9%.

Other cities where new business formation was ahead of the national average include Chicago, Austin, Texas, Baltimore, and South Bend, Ind.—all cities that also have open-data programs. Still, how effective the ventures are in creating jobs is difficult to gauge.

One wrinkle: privacy concerns about the potential for information—such as property tax and foreclosure data—to be misused.

Some privacy advocates fear that government data that include names, addresses and other sensitive information could be used by fraudsters to target victims.”

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