I have an opinion piece in The Age today [over the fold] about government information that remains hard to access and the stifling effects this has on entrepreneurial activity (in this case, my own). Hopefully, FuelWatch will not become another example of this.

Update: lots of interesting and related stuff: The New Yorker on blocking patents, a UK taskforce to free up public information and thanks to persistence, a breakthrough on Hansard.

Caught short: Information controls kills opportunities

Joshua Gans, The Age, 5th August, 2008

I HAD an idea a couple of months ago. It had to do with the iPhone and it was simple and compelling. For those who don’t know, the iPhone has several qualities that are not present to the same degree in other mobile devices.

First, it is easy to program applications for it. The software development kit is easy enough for, well, an older child, to use. Second, it is easy to distribute those applications through the iTunes music store. Third, as a 3G device, it accesses the internet at lightning speed. Finally, it has GPS built in.

And the idea? As a parent, what is the first thing I might want in a mobile device? I would like to know, at the speed of light, the location of the nearest public toilet.

I would take out my phone, press a button and a map would come up with the closest facilities. I could get directions (whether it be driving or walking) and off we would go. This is not just of use to parents, but to anyone.

In developing an application that does all of this, the easy bit is taking data on the location of public toilets and building an iPhone application to do the rest. The hard bit is the data. Type “public toilets” into, say, Google Maps on your desktop and the results are disappointing. The information isn’t there.

So this is something it seems you can’t do from your desk; but, then again, who would want to. Why invest in the data?

It turns out this is an area in which the Australian Government is ahead of the game. Through the National Continence Management Strategy, it has established a website with the National Toilet Map (toiletmap.gov.au). Basically, it has all the data one would need.

My iPhone idea would be to free that data for users of the iPhone rather than have it confined to a computer where only the most fastidious planners could make use of it.

So I got together with an MBA graduate and contacted the department responsible for the data. Our proposal was to provide the application for free and perhaps make some money from add-ons like linking to opening times and providing information on quasi-public toilets such as McDonald’s.

You would think that given that the data, in a not so usable form, was provided free, the Government would be happy to provide it to us and anyone else with entrepreneurial strategies related to continence. But no.

Citing “contractual arrangements” this publicly funded data-set was not available for free or even for purchase.

You might think that the social loss from this would be small. After all, couldn’t you access the toilet map through the browser on your iPhone? You can, but it is poorly constructed for that.

Due to some programming issues, it fills a third of the screen and then you have to actually type in your exact location to make it work. This is something you may not know. Moreover, some websites that do appear to have access to the information, such as Telstra’s whereis.com.au, are similarly handicapped. So if you are truly desperate, you could use the information, but not with the ease that we had in mind.

Another possibility is that we could get some extra programming muscle and literally scrape the data from the Government’s site. The problem is that the legality of this is murky given the state of our copyright law. For instance, Ice TV wanted to get time and broadcast data for its electronic programming guide but the Federal Court recently held that even doing this violated copyright laws.

This means that our broadcast television companies — granted licences to broadcast by the Government — can determine who can compete in another market; the market that includes devices to make watching television easier.

In part, their concern is that it can make it easier to to skip ads. But then again, they had no problem providing that data to the part-Channel-Nine-owned Foxtel and to the part-Channel-Seven-owned Tivo. This is not a picture of non-discriminatory access. Surely, the information is an appropriate quid pro quo of having a licence to broadcast.

Both of these illustrate the innovation-dampening effects of restricting the flow of information in situations where that information is supposed (and in the case of toilets, designed) to flow freely. Something capricious or short-sighted is limiting openness and the result is a loss in entrepreneurial opportunity.

And these are not the only areas where, in particular, government information that is supposed to be public is straitjacketed. We do not have bus and train timetables freely available as they do in places like South Korea. And what is going to happen with FuelWatch? Will the Federal Government and Australian Competition and Consumer Commission bind us to a desk to access this information or allow it to be freely and innovatively distributed in other ways; say, when you are actually in a car?

One can only hope that Lindsay Tanner’s review of regulatory constraints on innovation takes the notion of access to public information seriously and frees it from its current walls.

Only then can we see innovation flourish and immediate needs (literally) be met. In the meantime, if anyone can work out a way to make the FindaLoo idea work for the iPhone, please feel free to do so. I can’t wait.

Joshua Gans is a professor of economics at Melbourne Business School. He blogs on these issues at economics.com.au.

20 Responses to Find-a-Loo? Not yet

  1. Well written! You’d appreciate the comments of William Patry about the depressing state of copyright law
    http://williampatry.blogspot.com/2008/08/end-of-blog.html

  2. dr faustus says:

    I had this idea too, but never looked into it in as much depth as you have. I’m disappointed that it’s not possible.

    In the grand tradition of cute iPhone application names, I was going to call it iNeed2Go. Feel free to steal that name if you ever get it running. :)

  3. dyork says:

    I agree entirely. The move to give free access to ABS data was a rare gem in an otherwise gloomy landscape.

    Government data should be free and unrestricted. Instead government and public servants restrict the flow of information, in part I think to make it harder to know what they are actually doing with our money.

  4. optimist says:

    Recently I needed to replace some broken glass. In Aus we have rules covering things like the minimum thickness, toughening etc required for safe usage. But guess what — as a citizen I am not permitted to see the rules unless I pay Standards Australia a fee (in this case I could buy a licensed pdf version for $84). Is this a smart way to go? As a nation we have invested a lot in developing best-practices for all sorts of things, but then we seem to go out of our way to prevent their adoption!

  5. Information assets should be viewed as having a value similar as the railway networks of the 19th Century.

    Kryder’s Law means that freeing up data for re-use is an increasing opportunity and thorny policy challenge for all governments.

    When you want to take a ‘comfort break’ though, it is re-assuring to know that the UK leads the world:

    http://www.westminster.gov.uk/environment/streetcareandcleaning/satlav.cfm

  6. Joshua Gans says:

    I like the UK’s name: Sat Lav.

    I guess for the iPhone app we have lots of options. Of course, the one that stood out was ‘Poogle’

  7. Kevin Cox says:

    The ACT Government has called for comments on their paper titled “Citizen Centred Governance” http://www.cmd.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/2659/citizen_centred_governance.pdf

    I am writing a submission and this example will provide a good illustration of what can happen if we open up data collected by the government to the citizens. It would not only make the existing data useful you can easily allow the users of loos to suggest updates to the data when a new one was found and give comments on problems.

    Now extend this to other information – including information about ourselves – and perhaps the Bureau of Stats may be able to have a “continuous” census.

  8. Greg says:

    Great article with some important points!

    I wrote to Lindsay Tanner about the copyright status of the FuelWatch program, asking for assurances it will be free and available for “mashups”, such as the one discussed above and earlier:

    http://economics.com.au/?p=1439#comment-127953

    After three months or so, he wrote back assuring me it would indeed be made freely available. I’m still clarifying if he meant free as in “zero price” or as in “we won’t come after you if you make a map with it”.

    So I was disappointed to see today that the ACCC has a clause on their GROCERYwatch site stating that:

    “You may not alter, reproduce, re-transmit, distribute, display or commercialise the material in any way without written permission from the Director ACCC Publishing.”

    So no mashups there. I’ve written to the relevant minister, Chris Bowen, asking for this constraint to be lifted.

    Hopefully this is the kind of issue that will be addressed soon in a (groan) “whole of government” fashion through inquiries like the one mentioned by Kevin Cox above (ACT) or Victoria’s own inquiry into the use government data:

    http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/edic/inquiries/access_to_PSI/default.htm

    Lastly, on IceTV vs Nine and the absurd ruling that we can no longer “reverse engineer” TV guides by writing down what’s being shown when … please sign the petition:

    http://www.myepg.com.au/

    Well done on bringing these matters to a wider audience.

    -Greg.

  9. [...] and following up on my comment yesterday, if you think you can make use of the data and package it in a more informative way than [...]

  10. Paul Sofronoff says:

    Regarding tram and train timetables in Melbourne on an iPhone – see mobile.itransit.com.au. Also love how they say in the splash screen that it may not work very well in Internet Explorer!

    Paul

  11. Dave Bath says:

    There was a recent article in Foreign Policy on the world’s hardest places to find a loo that may be of interest: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/files/story4414.php

    China has made great efforts to make its capital city�s commodes more hospitable for the Olympics. But in this International Year of Sanitation, 2.5 billion people around the world don�t have access to hygienic bathroom facilities. Here are some of the countries where you should be prepared to hold it.

  12. [...] taken up. In addition, some things that had emerged later were reflected in the report including my call to unlock public information databases and also the importance of encouraging innovation in broadband [...]

  13. Anna says:

    It looks like someone has recently created a FuelWatch mashup app for the iPhone:

    http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=290932924&mt=8

    Let’s hope that when FuelWatch goes national, so will FuelView. I’m still looking for a loo app!

  14. [...] it isn’t a toilet finder but it is something. Google have teamed up with Motormouth to produce a Google Gadget that you can [...]

  15. [...] almost. I have long lamented the lack of a toilet finding iPhone application. Well, Toilet Mate (available at the App Store) goes a long way there. Open up [...]

  16. Fully agreed with your well written comments. We also thought that it would be more or less easy to be granted a license for the toiletmap.gov.au data which turned out to be a wrong assumption.

    Well, we did create a good iPhone app called ‘Show the Loo’ which is available as of now in the App store, even without the detailed data that we could have otherwise had for launch.

    We will approach the Department of Health and Ageing in a more official manner this time, see blog posts here http://theandb.biz/talk/mobile_world/ .

    All the very best,
    Bjoern

    Bjoern Schliebitz
    Director Pantha Corporation Pty. Ltd.

  17. [...] try and capture the iPhone ‘toilet finding’ application market. You might recall that I had this idea some months ago but was thwarted for easy entry because the government would not allow access to its toilet [...]

  18. [...] and resources and that can’t always be achieved by ‘quitting your day job.’ I myself had app aspirations back in the day. Today, I’m still just writing about them and my experience with bold start-ups trying to [...]

  19. [...] with the push of a button. I actually investigated doing this in Australia. The full story is here but the short version is that it turned out that the Australian government did in fact have an [...]

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