Public Access to Information

By Howard T. Spence

Throughout our history the person who has control over information has been able to assert leadership and control over many of the dialogues and decisions which are most important to us in many of our everyday activities and undertakings. Historically one of the main impediments to progress and to effective decision-making has been difficulty accessing an overwhelming amount of information that is “out there.”
Ever since mankind invented writing and record-keeping, many people have been involved in collecting, manipulating, and managing, and retrieving recorded information. Heads of governments and nations have appointed people to be responsible for understanding and making available information which is necessary to make what often amounts to life-and-death decisions in our everyday living and Government and business operations. 
Whether it was a scribe writing on papyrus to record the amounts and types of wheat or rice collected and stored, or the director of an information technology database system scanning in documents and doing Internet data research and collection, the people in charge of “information” have held exalted and respected positions in contemporary societies. The importance of the information collectors and distributors continues to grow in todays fast paced digital world.
Due to changes in technology we have progressed from writing on papyrus to mechanical counting and printing machines, and ultimately progressed on to computerization and digital storing of massive amounts of information which can be retrieved almost instantly and shared. Our world, culture and society today are based upon decision-making and “recollection of information” which no single human mind could handle. Many everyday transactions require specific data which must be retrieved accurately and quickly.
Moving to the digital world in which we now exist has resulted in a literal data assisted expansion of the mind and mental ability of almost all people. There is less need to retain information in our own human memories about specific details. We can retrieve that information almost as quickly by asking Google or some “personal assistant” on a cell phone or computer a question. Want to know what the hours of the local public library are today, or what the weather forecast for tomorrow will be? Just “ask Google!” 
So where does the information that we need and use each day come from? Much of that data is collected as a result of individuals like you and me completing forms and providing data about all aspects of our lives – either to government or businesses with which we interact. Want a marriage license? Fill out a form, and you are providing data or information which can be collected and retrieved as well as accumulated with other related data for analysis and prediction. How does your salary compare with that of someone doing the same work in Atlanta? Ask Google or do an Internet search to see if somebody has already collected the necessary relevant data for analysis and then analyzed it on a comparative basis. Chances are very likely that information has been collected and an answer to your questions can be provided to you almost instantly.
So whose information is it, anyways? The great bulk of data that we use each day is in the public domain and maintained on computer databases by governments and businesses. In fact, there has developed a whole new industry of data acquisition, analysis, retrieval and sale to members of the public. But even though the data is public, you may have to pay a fee or go through a formal process to get the information.
Howard T. Spence is a former Eaton County Commissioner representing residents in Delta Township. He is a licensed attorney, arbitrator, and former law judge.