In 2009 the US government (thanks to Obama) did a remarkable thing by releasing a ton (perhaps a Library of Congress worth of tons) of data:
Much of the data is in CSV/JSON/XLS/etc formats. The Seattle gov has done similar local data efforts, much through the same underlying architecture:
Socrata seems to be behind a lot of the more open stuff:
A few interesting visualizations of some of the data there as well.
Quite a bit of data still seems to be behind artificial paywalls that add friction to the process – say… individual criminal records, birth, death, etc. stuff. You – anyone on anyone else, as far as I can see – can get all that stuff, but you have to pay something like $10 or $20 per search; might have made sense in the old days, but why the artificial constraints now? For instance, at fortress.wa.gov (great name ;)), you can get criminal conviction records for others by:
Going on-line by using WATCH (Washington Access To Criminal History). This feature requires either a credit card or a pre-established account. A $10 fee is charged for each name search, regardless of the outcome of the results of the search.
Oddly it’s not ten bucks per name, it’s ten clams a search, no matter how many hits you get (zero+). Interestingly it also sez:
Under the Criminal Records Privacy Act, conviction CHRI may be made public to anyone without restriction and without the consent of the subject of the record.
So… I can get anything on anyone… and give it away to anyone… but I have to pay for it? It’s government data, why…?