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The Information War

by Glen Emerson Morris

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One Department of Commerce Web page recently featured a section titled "Save the Department of Commerce". It was no joke. The DOC has come under fire recently, primarily for doing one of the things it was initially set up to do, provide useful information to the business community.

The development of the personal computer system and the CD-ROM player have threatened the near monopoly larger corporations have had on government collected information.

The corporations aren't going to give up their advantage without a fight. Some interest groups are advocating the complete elimination of the DOC, while others are pressuring it to keep prices of data sets artificially high. This is unfortunate since this information could be of great use to small and medium sized businesses, and the advertising and marketing firms that help support them.

Department of Commerce data sets are particularly useful now that national phone directories have become available on low-cost CD-ROMs. The better of these sets allow searches to be made using both ZIP codes and SIC codes. (The SIC code, or Standard Industrial Classification, is a four digit number which identifies what type of business it is.) SIC codes allow very tight market targeting.

Certain DOC data sets list the revenue earned by each type of business in each ZIP code area in the country. This makes the data useful to people at the local level. For instance, a business wanting to open an additional location in any city could use DOC data sets to determine which ZIP code areas had the most potential customers, or the richest customers, and which areas had the least competition, or the poorest competition.

This is the kind of information that only used to come after expensive marketing studies, or the purchase of expensive reports from commercial information vendors. Some interests would like it to stay that way, but time and technology are not on their side.

The Internet is already changing the balance of power, just by making it easier for large numbers of people to find out what information is actually available. The Internet, with its built-in linking ability, is the perfect technology to help people navigate the maze of DOC agencies and their products. The DOC doesn't advertise, except it its own publications, so before the Internet just finding the needed information could be as expensive as buying it.

The Department of Commerce home page ( is a good place to start looking for useful data. The DOC home page has links to several keys sites, including a page of links to every agency in the DOC. Some of these agencies put real data online, free, especially written reports (as opposed to statistics), but most of the DOC data online is only available at a cost. The DOC online service, STAT-USA (http:/// costs $50.00 quarterly, or $150.00 yearly, for single users. Site licenses cost up to $15,000.00.

Another good source of information is FedWorld, an online central clearing house for information from all government departments, not just from the DOC. FedWorld states its primary function is to help people order, pay for, and receive information. It is not there to distribute information for free. It does offer access to more than 130 government online sites, and some of these sites do offer free information, but the best information always seems to cost.

Many of the DOC prices in no way reflect the actual cost of distributing the data. The "City and County Data Book" costs $175.00 on tape, and $150.00 on CD-ROM, even though the production cost of the CD is far less than the production costs for the tape. There are literally thousands of reports, briefs, and data sets available, and many of them cost $150.00 and up. Buying a modest collection at current prices would be an expense most businesses couldn't afford. Including postage and handling, the CD-ROMs should cost no more than $20.00, and even that would be on the high side. Access to online information should be priced no more than access to America Online or Prodigy.

Lower prices would make a lot of valuable information widely available to small and medium sized businesses, exactly those who need it the most, but for this to happen some very powerful political forces will have to be overcome. It won't be easy, but it is necessary.

In the Information Age, no country can afford to lose an information war; especially a domestic one.

Advertising & Marketing Review Online now features links to many key government agencies, and articles about how to obtain, understand, and use the data available from them.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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