(I'm including myself in this, by the way. Trampoline's Enron Explorer is a perfect case in point. The information was already public domain, and we weren't even the first to visualise it - we just put a Web 2.0 face on it, and got lucky with the timing.)
But now and again there comes an application of this philosophy that makes me wonder how far is too far? Enter the charmingly named www.whosarat.com.
According to the New York Times:
The site was started by Sean Bucci in 2004, after he was indicted in federal court in Boston on marijuana charges based on information from an informant.
Initially free, it now charges charges between $7.99 for a week and $89.99 for life. You don't have to be as cynical as me to take a guess as to the kind of people who will happily pay to see names and mugshots of the 4,300 informers and 400 undercover agents that the site says it has identified.
So is this too far?
Is it possible to define a clear moral line between a "good" use of public-domain data and "bad" ? Even if it is possible, should we?
Should some usages be permitted but not others? How do we tell the difference?
What is it that actually makes me uneasy about this?
The trouble is that any time you actually try to define what's acceptable and what isn't, in clear unambiguous language, you can always find a counter-example that destroys your mental partitioning of the world and means you have to start again.
The only way I can put my finger on what bothers me about the site is to refer to the intent behind it. Where the intent behind a mashup like Chicago Crime could reasonably be argued to be beneficial to society in some way, Who's A Rat is clearly not.
But even that definition is full of ambiguity. Who's A Rat may well be of immense benefit to certain segments of society (Hal Helms' "Vinny" persona, for one) and Chicago Crime could be argued to be detrimental to, say, property owners in high-crime areas who are looking to sell.
I guess the hoary old cliche applies just as much to information as to people :
with great freedom comes great responsibility. We can't on the one hand argue that information needs to be free, yet on the other hand argue that it can only be free for usages that we like. Either the information is out there or it isn't, and I guess that if we want to gain the benefits of information freedom, we have to be prepared to tolerate the drawbacks.