The Expense of Data Arises Again

Museum data proves expensive to create and maintain, but some want magic

The Expense of Data Arises Again

Back in 2019, I noticed a trend of databases adopting the subscription model as the fees involved in ingesting, processing, posting, and maintaining data are not trivial. I even interviewed the curator of one such database, which remains under a subscription model, as do others in the sciences. Establishing a paywall for useful and constantly evolving data seems to work, as it provides sufficient recurring revenues to overcome funding cuts, which allows for updates, maintenance, and dependability.

In Finland, there is an uproar over a decision by Kimmo Levä, Director General of the Finnish National Gallery, to move away from free data access to information about the museum’s collection (including a CC0 license) and to charge for access to the data and databases generated around their collection. Via Google Translate, Levä writes:

The time for open information is over
Harnessing data for utilization in a data economy framework means in practice building data-based direct earnings models. The data holder must have the capital to generate direct income to support his financial success. From the perspective of the National Gallery, this would mean a complete paradigm shift.

Until now, our perspective and goal has been to make as much information available as possible in open data networks and licensed so that the owner of the data has as few rights and responsibilities as possible to manage the use of the data. The idea of ​​charging for the use and other utilization of information has been impossible due to the social nature of museum activities. With the data we manage, we have primarily wanted to promote the development of society rather than our own economic well-being. The consequences of this choice are beginning to show. Managing and keeping data available requires more money, which should be saved for other activities.

Digitization does not bring any savings to museums, as collections are still preserved in physical form. . . . With digitalisation, we are entering an economic impasse.

Of course, Finland’s open access warriors aren’t having this. Known as AvoinGLAM, the group has written a response that depends on multiple, predictable canards:

Open, reliable information supports democracy and increases inclusion in society. Open and high-quality digital cultural heritage materials are a source for creativity. They enable learning, research, journalism, innovation and civil society activities. The integration of knowledge and digital heritage across organizational and national borders is possible. Do we want to throw all this aside?

As noted yesterday, there is no evidence that open information supports democracy. In fact, it may do the opposite — after all, if you’re able to use personalization to atomize experience at the individual level, what kind of social cohesion can you expect? The kind to support self-government? Or something that brings more to mind the idea of “we either hang together, or hang separately,” with the latter being more likely?

Reliable data can create many benefits, none of which is prevented by having a small fee imposed for access. After all, people pay to get an education, get funded to do research, earn a living as journalists, have VCs backing innovation, and so forth. Economic exchanges are normal, expected, and perfectly reasonable.

The idea that data are cheap, or public goods, or should be openly accessible is coming under pressures from reality – financial reality in this case, and just last month the risks of data being misused led some sources to pull them back from public access.

Databases — good ones — can be worth a lot. People who stand to make money by using the data — researchers via papers that can get them better jobs; students who expect their educations to pay off with good careers; journalists who get paid to investigate and interrogate the facts; and professionals and semi-professionals with jobs related to the arts and culture – all should be willing to pay for data.

There’s nothing outrageous about the proposal to put a museum’s data behind a paywall when most of the use will be professional. Asking professionals to pay for information is nothing new, and it’s a realistic approach to ensuring reliable data perpetuates into the future.