Some economics of digitized data

[this is a guest post by Kyle Meng]

We often pride ourselves for living in the age of information. The internet and its many services have made available to us a wealth of information and data with unprecedented ease of access. An important question, however, is whether we're gaining access to accurate information or the most useful information.

In a recent article published in Climatic Research (and reviewed HERE), researchers estimate that some 80% of all climate data collected has yet to be digitized. Much of this is data collected in the pre-industrial era, and some of it covering parts of the world we still don't know much about climatically (i.e. Africa). That's tremendously valuable information. When we think about anthropogenic climate change, one of the best ways to understand impacts in the future is to look to the past. The further back we can go, the more we can account for any natural variation in the Earth's climatic system and thus better understand how society respond to such changes. The social benefit is clearly there, and so too is the classic market failure.

So where is the private provision of this information? Let's take Google for example. Of all companies, Google, which tasks itself with cataloging and making accessible the world's information, seems the most likely candidate for digitizing climate information. Yet, if one looks at Google's efforts in digitizing information - from books to locations to artwork - its pretty clear that there's a profit motive (or more specifically an advertising motive) behind most of it. What would be the private returns of digitizing climate data? Zilch, unless you count the handful of academics that would use the data - but that's just a handful of adSense clicks from poor researchers.

Its a classic case for government funding. This is information that can potentially change the way we think about anthropogenic climate change. It's out there and yet there are few incentives or efforts to digitize it (with some notable exceptions). Of the deluge of information that's out there, shouldn't this rank higher than the latest celebrity tweet?

note: figure from Brohan P (2009) Why historical climate and weather observations matter? In: ACRE data and data visualisation meeting. Exeter Meeting, 15 September 2009. Available at: www.met-acre.org/meetings-and-workshops-1/acre-dataand-visualisation-meeting

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