Here’s a risky strategy: begin a blog post with the bold step of combining two cliches in order to say something potentially new and useful.  The first cliche shall be the business school action phrase “adding value”.  The second shall be the rule that destroys Internet business models: “information wants to be free”.  From these two old saws, we shall construct a useful question (and potentially some answers):

How do we add value to information that wants to be free?

In a delicious bit of blog post research transforming blog post thesis, my background work on this post turned up a very interesting fact about that “information wants to be free” motto.  It turns out that the original remark was more complex and interesting than the shortened motto that has emerged into the culturel.  Furthermore, the more complete original quote delves right into the question I’ve knitted together from these handy cliches.

Stewart Brand, speaking at the first Hackers conference back in 1984 (way pre-Internet) said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Yes, “information want to be free” has developed a life as an organizing philosophy around free content and free access and data sources playing nicely with each other.  But the original statement raises the problematic flip side of free information.  Information has value, and that value creates tension with the impulse toward freedom now thought to be possessed by information, espeically on the web.

There are some ways that we can add value to information.  Some examples:


This is like a children’s puzzle: What’s the difference between these two lists?  It’s easy, right?  List B is sorted, and list A is not.  Sorting is a simple way to add value to information.  We mostly notice the value of sorting when we encounter a list in no recognizable order.  Alphabetical is wonderful; scope and scale (in any measure) is often useful; for some lists, time is irreplaceable as an order.

When we rate information, we add value to it.  A few ways to add rating to lists:



The second rating may be more familiar: it’s the Populartiy bar in the iTunes store.  We gain information by seeing what track has been purchased most often.  This helps in iTunes because different versions of a given song are available for sale, and often the most popular one is the most familiar one and more likely the one you want.  The first rating is a simple checkmark on the list of songs at the AllMusic Guide, which indicates that this is a “track pick” by the editors at the site.  Expert picking rates in a very different way than populartiy, right?  The Internet tends to raise questions about the role of the expert in the face of crowdsourcing.  Both kinds of ratings add value, though: the wisdom/traffic of the crowd on the one hand and the highlighting by the expert on the other.

Finally, if you love something, set it free.  Paradoxically, when we free information, we can add value to it.


The above image comes from Google Transit, a result of the Port Authority of Allegheny County opening up its route data to Google, who enhanced that information by putting it in an interface that the Port Authority had not developed on its own.  Google Transit enhances searches for transit directions by making the search and results work as well as (and actually quite similarly to) online driving directions.  I would argue that even as Port Authority gave away something of value in making its information available for Google’s interface, there was an exchange of value.  Ridership should increase because people can find their way more easily on Port Authority’s buses and trolleysdue to Google Transit.  In being freed, the information gains value.

What information in your vaults could be enhanced today by some sorting, rating or freeing?