Last week, Susan Leib, 20, accomplished something in a whirlwind. Just 10 years ago it would’ve taken months.

As a Global Information Systems student from the eastern edge of Tornado Alley, the Quad Cities, she wondered whether tornadoes persist longer under warm temperatures. Her Olivet professor supplied analytics and software, but data was a problem.

“A lot of the information I found on the Internet was perfect, but it cost between $100 and $200 to download,” she explained from a geology lab last week.

But as unpredictable as a cyclone turn, she landed in databanks at Iowa State University. The records were online and free. It turns out warm temps do influence the life span of a twister. Global warming theorists think about such things.

Without free data she’d continue exasperated, like Dorothy looking for Kansas. But thanks to the “open content” movement, and Iowa State’s participation, Leib’s questions and thousands of others can be answered now, without charge.

The idea first stirred among intellectuals in the late ’90s on the idealistic proposition that free, online information in the hands of self-learners would exponentially expand knowledge across the world.

But the movement was also practical. Science professionals needed to “combat hugely overpriced science journals by publishing their own,” according to Instructional Services librarian Jasmine Cieszynski. The combined price for all university-level science journals, electronic and print, currently goes for about $23,000 per year.

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