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March 4, 2014, 11:03 a.m.

ProPublica opens up shop with a new site to sell custom datasets

It’s a potential revenue source for the nonprofit, and a way to get more value out of its investigations.

Data is at the heart of much of ProPublica’s reporting. So why not try to find a new way to make money off of your franchise?

With the launch of the ProPublica Data Store, the nonprofit is trying to see if it can turn one of its strengths into a potential revenue generator. The Data Store offers a selection of datasets — some for sale, with prices varying depending on the user, some free.

The information in the store is a mix of raw data ProPublica has received through FOIA requests, data already available on the open web, and datasets that have been cleaned and prepared extensively by ProPublica staff for other investigations. While the raw and open datasets are free, the data cooked by ProPublica comes with a price tag attached. It’s a setup similar to NICAR’s Database Library, which offers journalists clean and formatted government data on things like plane accidents, federal contracts, and workplace safety records.

For users wanting to get their hands on a state’s worth of data from ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs series, for instance, the cost varies: $200 for journalists, $2,000 for academics. Companies looking to use the data for commercial purposes have to negotiate a (presumably higher) price with ProPublica. Like any good business, ProPublica offers potential customers free samples of the data before they make a purchase.

ProPublica has always encouraged a level of openness with its work, often making investigations available to others by Creative Commons, or building news apps that allow readers to play with data. The data store is an extension of that, but also a potential solution to a question many newsrooms face: how to extract additional value out of an investigation.

But don’t expect the store to be a significant source of revenue, at least right away, according to Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s president. “It will take a while for us to see if that’s a serious revenue source or not,” Tofel told me.

Tofel said the company has fielded requests for commercial use of its data in the past. He said that could be a source of business of the company, if the interest materializes. The broader goal of the data store, he said, is providing an easier way for people to access information ProPublica has at its disposal.

“The net effect of this initiative is to make a lot more data publicly available without having to go through us,” he said.

Scott Klein, senior editor for news applications at ProPublica, said one purpose of the data store was to create a standardized system for the flow of data through the newsroom. As a repository, the data store can be a resource to point journalists and academics to what records are available for free online. But Klein said the store also expands on the idea of encouraging others to build on ProPublica’s work.

In building the data store, Klein said they wanted to develop pricing that would account for the hours of work his team put into the datasets while also being fair to journalists and academics. “It’s not uncommon for us to spend months cleaning and assembling datasets,” Klein said.

There’s no revenue targets or other goals associated with the project. Both Klein and Tofel said they’re eager to see the response to the data store and if it can gain traction. Klein said he believes if the experiment is successful, one idea they could consider is à la carte datasets created specifically for others to purchase through the data store.

“One of the ways of figuring out if there is a market for this, and how to serve this market, is to just try it,” Klein said.

Photo of the Data Food Store in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean by Paul Keller used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 4, 2014, 11:03 a.m.
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