A recently settled federal court case out in Utah may affect the way news organizations and citizens get access to crime data.
Public Engines, a company that publishes crime statistics for law enforcement agencies, sued ReportSee, which provides similar services, for misappropriating crime data ReportSee makes available on CrimeReports.com. In the settlement, ReportSee is barred from using data from Public Engines, as well as from asking for data from agencies that work with Public Engines.
At first glance, the companies seem virtually identical, right down to their similar mapping sites CrimeReport.com (Public Engines) and SpotCrime.com (ReportSee). The notable exception is that Public Engines contracts with police and sheriff departments for its data and provides tools to manage information. ReportSee, on the other hand, relies on publicly available feeds.
In the settlement between the two websites, a new question arises: Just what constitutes publicly available data? Is it raw statistics or refined numbers presented by a third party? Governments regularly farm out their data to companies that prepare and package records, but what stands out in this case is that Public Engines effectively laid claimed to the information provided to it by law enforcement. This could be problematic to news organizations, developers, and citizens looking to get their hands on data. While still open and available to the public, the information (and the timing of its release) could potentially be dictated by a private company.
“The value in this kind of crime data is distributing it as quickly as possible so the public can interact with it,” Colin Drane, the founder of SpotCrime, told me.
In its news release on the settlement, Public Engine notes that it works with more than 1,600 law enforcement agencies in the US. Greg Whisenant, CEO of Public Engines, said in the statement that the company is pleased with the outcome of the case, concluding, “The settlement ushers in a new era of transparency and accessibility for the general public. It clearly validates our perspective that law enforcement agencies should retain the right to manage and control the data they decide to share.”
Naturally, Drane sees things differently. “I just don’t think people recognize that the data is being, essentially, privatized,” he said.
That may be a slight exaggeration, evidenced by the fact that SpotCrime is still operating. Instead of signing contracts with law enforcement agencies, SpotCrime requests data that is available for free and runs ads on its map pages. The company also partners with local media to run crime maps on news sites.
Through Drane sought to create a business through data mapping, his methods are largely similar to those of news organizations, relying on open data and free mapping tools. And just like news organizations, Drane finds that the hardest part of the job can be negotiating to get records.
“The technology has been here for years, but the willingness to use it is just starting for many cities,” Drane said.
The open data movement has certainly exploded in recent years, from property and tax records at the municipal level all the way up to Data.gov. As a result, news organizations are not only doing data-backed reporting, but also building online features and news apps. And news organizations are not alone, as developers and entrepreneurs like Drane are mining open datasets to try to create tools and fill information needs within communities.
I asked David Ardia of the Citizen Media Law Project whether this case could hinder development of more data products or have broader ramifications for journalists and citizens. The short answer is no, he said, since no ruling was issued. But Public Engines could be emboldened to take action against competitors, Ardia noted — and, as a result, developers looking to do something similar to what Drane has done may think twice about using public data.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Ardia said. “There are tremendous amounts of money to be made in government information and data.”
In this case, Public Engines saw crime data as a proprietary product — and Dane’s company as infringing on their contract. It also claimed misappropriation of the hot news doctrine, arguing that it gathers and publishes information in a timely manner as part of its business. (An interesting link Ardia points out: On its FAQ page, CrimeReports.com says it does not make crime data downloadable “to the general public for financial and legal reasons.”)
Ardia said the larger question is twofold: first, whether government agencies will let third parties exert control over public data, and, second, who can access that data. As more local and state departments use outside companies to process records, tax dollars that go towards managing data are essentially paid to limit access to the public. Drane and his company were barred from using or asking to use public crime data in certain cities: If crime data is the property of a third party, the police department could either direct people to CrimeReports.com or, Ardia worries, say that it’s not free to make the information available to others.
“This is a problematic trend as governments adapt to and adopt these technologies that improve their use and analysis of information,” Ardia said.
Obviously all of this runs counter to established practice for public records and data in journalism, and Ardia said that it’s likely the issue won’t be settled until a case similar to Public Engines v. ReportSee makes its way to the courts. (We should have a better view of how the hot news doctrine holds up overall, though, after an appeals court rules on the FlyOnTheWall case.) But a better option could be to adapt current open records laws to reflect changes in how data is stored, processed, and accessed, Ardia said. Businesses and developers should be able to build products on a layer of public data, he said, but not exclusively — or at the expense of greater access for the broader public.
“We don’t have to wait for the courts to resolve this. Part of this can be addressed through changes in open records laws,” Ardia said. “Put the onus on agencies to make this data available when they sign agreements with third parties.”
We could call this week a paid content free-for-all, but that’s self-contradictory. So let’s call it a pay-for-all, a fray of still-developing schemes that are certain to keep morphing as both competition and publishers’ heads spin ever more quickly.
It’s a head-banging adventure to figure out what’s unfolded just this week. Apple offered a proclamation of policy, and given its aversion to talking with the press — what kind of media company is it becoming? — managed to multiply questions rather than answer them. Google, coincidentally, announced its own publisher program on the heels of Apple’s release, which sounded better than Apple’s. European publishers are meeting today, in London, to sort out the who’s-doing-what for (and to) whom. Meanwhile, U.S. publishers burn up the phone lines and extend the e-mail streams, upset, irate, and confused.
Well done. If Apple’s business strategy here is divide and conquer by muddle, misunderstanding and mix-up, it couldn’t have done a better job.
If we had to pick one storyline for the Apple play, we could describe it as Old vs. New World, with Apple saying to publishers, “Sure, bring those oldster subscribers into our digital world and keep the change, but we’ll be the ones selling the new subscribers to come.” That storyline, though, lacks nuance. In addition, there are in-between solutions (no skipping ahead) to the issues.
This week, let’s try a Newsonomics of the Apple, Google, and Journalism Online pay-for-all Q&A, to poke at and tease out the issues.
- Is this all about money? Money and power, what else is there, right? This is really about money and data, though. The money is easiest to grasp — the 30-percent share that Apple wants for selling news and magazine subs through its store. The data is potentially more valuable, the real currency of the digital world. It’s better than cash, because it produces cash cumulatively: Data tells marketers, from Apple to news and magazine publishers to advertisers of all kinds, how they can better sell us stuff over time.
- Is Apple’s move to dictate so many terms legal? We may as well ask whether it’s fattening (and to whose wallets) or moral. Anti-trust is certainly one issue here, but the anti-trust laws were never meant to tackle a rocketing market dominance from zero to 13 million (about the number of iPads sold in a year) in what may be a new category of business. Is the tablet simply a new device, or is it an entire marketplace, of readers and advertisers, quickly in the making? Current estimates say that Apple will have still have 70 percent or more of the $80 million U.S. tablet market by the end of next year. That’s all forecast, though. U.S. news companies are looking at several avenues of legal redress, already, around the notions of dominance and Apple’s alleged interference with their customer relationships and pricing policies.
- Doesn’t Apple deserve just a small fee for enabling commerce, say a 2.5+ percent to cover its costs, and add a bit of profit? If you look at the actual costs of enabling a subscription transaction, you’d start with a low single-digit number. In fact, though, Apple does deserve some payoff for its market-making success. For publishers, especially, its tablet innovation — built on a couple of decades of failed tablet ideas — has provided new life, the chance for a reinvigorated business model that gets digital readers to actually pay for news. Apple deserves something for its investment in hardware and software, plus a bonus for outrageous ahead-of-the-pack ingenuity. Further, the company deserves kudos for forcing Amazon to flip its 70/30 revenue split of 2009 to 30/70, in favor of publishers. It wouldn’t hurt publishers to acknowledge the market-making feat Apple has pulled off with the iPad. My arithmetic, though, shows Apple’s just deserts to be something less than a 30 percent annuity.
- What’s all this shouting from newspaper and magazine publishers about owning the customer? Pick apart a media company, and it doesn’t really have that much in the way of assets. In the digital age, the five-story downtown office building and the printing press — once part of the high barrier to entry for competitors — are now anchors, and being sold off as soon as the market allows. Brand — goodwill — is certainly valuable, but the definable hard assets are advertiser account lists and circulation lists. The circulation lists point, though more questionably today, to lifetime value. A buyer (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) values that list. Now, in this tablet age, the circulation list — really the connection to reader/customers — is the vital link in selling more stuff: tablet subscriptions, to be sure, but also a host of other digital products and services to come.
- Hasn’t Apple, though, made it possible for publishers to sell digital subscriptions from their own websites? Yes, but its new rules on how they can do it appear to twist settled issues into new knots. The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, in part adjusting to the tablet era and Apple’s signals, have moved to all-access models (“The Newsonomics of News Anywhere“), offering digital bundles (desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone), print and print+ digital bundles. Now it appears that while Apple will continue to allow them to sell those bundles from their own websites, they can no longer sell them from within the Apple app environment. (Only Apple can now do that, most think, but are unsure.)
So if the Journal wants to be really all-access — offering one price to use your Android phone, your iPad, or your Kindle, and to get the paper — it can do that from its own website. But any customer who finds the Journal on the iPad can buy only a limited iPad or iPhone subscription, since Apple can’t authenticate operating systems other than its own. The latest Apple move appears to fragment a clear trend in the industry to move to a simplified single-price, no-fuss, all-access model.
One more knot: The Apple rules seem to force publishers to restrict access for desktop/laptop access to their websites, if they want to bundle iPad/iPhone subs. That may be a good business model, but it’s not one that a single manufacturer should be able to force. Overall, this week’s announcement raises new questions about publishers’ abilities to effectively bundle and unbundle — and that’s a big key for next-generation success.
- But, wait a minute, isn’t Apple talking about providing more customers to newspaper and magazine companies? Yes, no and sort of. Here’s the compelling number to breathe in for a moment: 160 million. That’s the number of registered iTunes account holders, more or less. The largest U.S. newspaper by circulation, the Wall Street Journal, counts only 2 million subscribers, print and online. Even the biggest in the world, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, boasts less than a tenth of that 160 million.
So, unless new customers opt in, they’ll presumably be getting app products with as little relationship to the publisher as an iTunes buyer of a Springsteen track has to Columbia Records. Publishers won’t be able to market to them, or presumably (but not certainly) customize their reading or shopping presentations — both hugely important in the years ahead.
- Today, though, doesn’t Apple have a new competitor in Google’s One Pass, which undercuts Apple’s 30-percent revenue share by two-thirds, asking publishers for a 10-percent cut? No, not really. If a publisher wants to reach those 160 million iTunes account holders, it looks like Apple is saying, “We’ll do that selling and send you 70 cents on every dollar you charge.” If you want to buy from the iTunes store or any iNewsstand to come, the only vendor will be Apple. Where Google’s One Pass comes in is as a competitor to Journalism Online’s Press+.
Until yesterday, if you were a news publisher who wanted to start charging for digital content, you had two major choices: 1) build it yourself, as The New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, and Memphis’ Commercial Appeal, among others, are doing, with and without outside help; 2) partner with Journalism Online. JO would do the commerce and authentication, connecting up databases of print subscribers with digital sign-ups. Though the publicly known JO take has been seen as a 20-percent revenue share, JO co-founder Gordon Crovitz told me yesterday that the revenue share number can “get meaningfully below 10 percent at larger volumes.”So, on the one hand, we have newspaper companies — with commerce partners like Journalism Online or Google taking a 10- to 20-percent revenue cut as they extend their print franchises digitally — and, on the other, we have Apple wanting 30 percent to bring in new digital customers. With Apple’s new policy, these may make two separate islands of selling.
- Is Apple’s subscription program a Trojan Horse for iAds? Well, iAds are certainly a big push at Apple, and I’ve heard that Apple has said it needs more inventory (ad space) for six-figure-campaign iAds, which is one reason that signing up lots of tablet-based news products makes sense. The subscription program, though, is probably a horse of another color. Add up the 30-percent take — if it could stick — on newspaper and magazine subs, Hulu and Netflix subs, and lots more recurring revenue, though, and that’s a golden horse. In fact, if iAds were a front-and-center goal, Apple would be smart to offer package deals to its new subscription partners — lowering those 30-percent subscription revenue shares as partners agree to take Apple-sold iAds into their tablet products.
- What about publishers’ abilities to sell targeted ads through the tablet? Now, that’s a hornet’s nest. I’ve talked to a number of publishers and app developers, and they are all unclear on just how much in-app tracking of user behavior Apple will let them do within apps. So, here, we have questions of just how trackable tablet behavior is: with apps, no cookies. Then we have the further question of what Apple will allow, invoking…privacy. That’s a huge question as readers move quickly from print to tablets: Publishers must hope and pray that the print ads, with print-like pricing, move along with them, and targeting is the key technology to do that.
- What’s the likely consumer result? Someone’s got to put together an effective third-party news (plus) app store. You’ve got all kinds of players here, potentially, like Yahoo’s Livestand, the start-up GetJar, and companies like Ongo, trying to cross-title sales. They will get into the fray, joining the single-operating-system app stores, from Apple to Palm to Blackberry to Nokia. Wouldn’t it be great for a news consumer to go to one place — in addition to the news site itself — to get a clear package of digital news offers, with small commissions going to the selling site?
- What’s a solution to the mess? Well, there are any number of solutions. Here’s mine: Apple goes ahead and sells digital subscriptions in its store. On revenue shares, it takes 30 percent the first year, 20 percent the second year, 10 percent the third year, and 5 percent each subsequent year the sub is live. It further offers “add-on” products, like print subscriptions and even subscriptions to other non-Apple digital products, with those sales enabled through a publisher’s site; Apple gets a 5-percent revenue share for the first year on any of these add-ons. Apple shares with publishers the user data it already knows and the data to come, still being a major victor here because it alone sees the big picture of news behavior aggregated across all news apps. Apple incents publisher partners to gladly join in the iAds program, giving them preferential revenue shares in the program. Do all that — and everyone can advance.
Two years ago, Google acquired Gapminder, the Swedish graphics-display company whose Trendalyzer software specializes in representing data over time. (You may recall the company from this awesome and much-circulated TED talk from 2006.) Since the acquisition, Google has built out the Trendalyzer software to create its Public Data Explorer, a tool that makes large datasets easy to visualize — and, for consumers, to play with. The Explorer has created interactive and dynamic data visualizations of information about traditionally hard-to-grasp concepts like unemployment figures, income statistics, world development indicators, and more. It’s a future-of-context dream.
“It’s about not just looking at data, but really understanding and exploring it visually,” Benjamin Yolken, Google Public Data’s product manager, told me. The project’s overall mission, it’s worth noting, is a kind of macro-meets-meta version of journalism’s: “to make the world’s public data sets accessible and useful.”
The big catch, though, as far as journalism goes, has been that users haven’t been able to do much with the tool besides look at it. If you’ve gathered public data sets that would lend themselves to visualization on the Explorer, you’ve had to contact Google and ask them to visualize it for you. (“While we won’t be able to individually reply to everyone who fills out this form,” a contact form noted, “we may be in touch to learn more about your data.”)
Today, though, that’s changing: Google is opening up its Explorer tool. Yolken and Omar Benjelloun, Google Public Data’s tech lead, have written a new data format, the Dataset Publishing Language (DSPL), designed particularly to support dynamic dataviz. “DSPL is an XML-based format designed from the ground up to support rich, interactive visualizations like those in the Public Data Explorer,” Benjelloun notes in a blog post announcing the opening. (It’s the same language that the Public Data team had been using internally to produce its datasets and visualizations.) Today, that language — and an interface facilitating data upload — are available for anyone to use, putting the “public” in “public data.”
It’s an experimental feature that, like the Public Data Explorer itself — not to mention some of Google’s most fun features (Google Scribe, Google Body, Google Books’ Ngrams viewer, etc.) — lives under the Google Labs umbrella. And, importantly, it’s a feature, Yolken notes, that “allows users who may or may not have technical expertise to explore, visually, a number of public data sets.”
The newly open tool could be particularly useful for news organizations that would like to get into the dataviz game, but that don’t have the resources — of time, of talent, of money — to invest in proprietary systems. (The papers of the Journal Register Company, a news organization that has made a point of experimenting with free, web-based journalistic tools, comes to mind here — though any news outfit, big or small, could benefit.) The Public Data team had two main goals in opening up the Explorer tool to users, Yolken notes: Increasing the datasets available to be visualized and, then, distributing them. “First, we want to have lots of data sets available that are credible and useful and interesting,” he says. Second, the hope is that the tool’s embedding capabilities will allow for easy sharing of those data sets.
Though the Explorer platform is now open to anyone — and though Yolken and Benjelloun mention teachers and students as groups who might do some interesting experiments with it — they hope that journalists, in particular, will make use of the tool. Even more particularly: “data-driven journalists.”
To that end, the tool isn’t as intuitively understandable as, say, the awesomely easy Ngrams book viewer tool — “we realized that, in order to show the data properly, to make the data understandable, you really needed to describe the metadata,” Benjelloun notes — but nor does it require special expertise to use. “This format doesn’t require engineering skills,” Yolken says; then again, “it’s not as easy as a spreadsheet.” It’s somewhere in the middle — akin to learning, say, basic HTML. (Here’s more on how to use it.)
But if journos can get beyond the initial learning curve (one that, for data-driven journos, in particular, won’t be especially steep), they, and their readers, could benefit doubly. The Explorer tool allows users not just to create dynamic data visualizations, but also to avail themselves of a new way to understand those data in the first place. In other words: The tool could prove useful from both the presentation and the production ends of the journalistic spectrum. There’s something about watching data move over time, Yolken notes, that changes your perspective as a consumer of those data. “It makes you start asking questions that you wouldn’t have asked before.”
Back in 2009, we broke word that Google was working on an e-payment solution for publishers that would be based on its Google Checkout platform. Google’s proposal (pdf) to the Newspaper Association of America said that the company’s “vision of a premium content ecosystem includes”:
• Single sign-on capability for users to access content and manage subscriptions
• Ability for publishers to combine subscriptions from different titles together for one price
• Ability for publishers to create multiple payment options and easily include/exclude content behind a paywall
• Multiple tiers of access to search including 1) snippets only with “subscription” label, 2) access to preview pages and 3) “first click free” access
• Advertising systems that offer highly relevant ads for users, such as interest-based advertising
Google’s got plenty of targeted advertising options (#5), and First Click Free is old hat by now (#4). But Google took a big step toward fulfilling the rest of that vision (#1, #2, and #3) today with the announcement of Google One Pass, “a payment system that enables publishers to charge consumers for articles and other content.” And coming on the heels of Apple’s less-than-publisher-friendly subscription announcement yesterday, Google’s alternative may seem like a breath of fresh air.
First, Google is selling flexibility. No requirement to offer the same deal through a Google One Pass payment system as through other means — which means bundling with print subscriptions is a whole lot simpler than with Apple. Print customers can enter a coupon code to get free access to a website. Want to try a metered model, or experiment with putting more, less, or different content behind a paywall? No problem. It’s device-agnostic — so if you want to sell an all-access, all-platform subscription, no problem there either. (It’s also a micropayment platform, for the few still living who believe in per-article micropayments as a viable model.)
Second, as Lee Shirani writes in the announcing blog post: “With Google One Pass, publishers can maintain direct relationships with their customers and give readers access to digital content across websites and mobile apps.” That sentence isn’t detailed any further in the initial announcement or docs online, but it sure sounds like a nice way of saying, “We’ll let you keep all the customer data Apple isn’t letting you have.”
And, most key of all, Google isn’t demanding the 30 percent cut Apple does. The announcement doesn’t share cost details, but the FT is reporting Google will take 10 percent of any subscription revenue. So selling a $15/month subscription via Apple would net $10.50 versus $13.50 via Google.
The announcement’s a lot to digest, but three quick thoughts:
— With the timing, it’s easy to see One Pass primarily as a competitor to Apple’s subscription plans. But note that the focus is primarily on web access, not app access. (Note that the word “Android” — Google’s mobile platform — is mentioned nowhere.) While mobile apps get a shoutout in the announcement, Google notes that it’ll work only “in instances where the mobile OS terms permit transactions to take place outside of the app market,” which likely means it’ll only work in Android apps, which are still a secondary priority for most news orgs, for better or worse, and where getting users to pay anything for apps has been a challenge. At least for the moment, One Pass is more of a direct competitor to Journalism Online’s Press+ than it is to Apple. It’s an infrastructure play.
— Frankly, I’m a little surprised Google’s even taking 10 percent. The transaction costs themselves shouldn’t be any higher than what Google Checkout regularly charges, which is 2.9 percent plus 30 cents a transaction (plus volume discounts). Sure, building and maintaining the record-keeping system for subscribers and the tools for distinguishing free/paid content will cost something. But Google’s consistent model has been to undercut paid competitors by making good free offerings, and I’d have thought just keeping the Checkout fees would have been the play, to soak up as much of the market as possible.
— What Apple is selling publishers is not just an easy payment system — they’re selling the 160 million user accounts with active credit cards attached. That’s about 70 million more than PayPal. How many of you have a credit card on file with Google Checkout, which has struggled to gain relevance and market share?