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.
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.