I have long been on about the open availability of public data (see here and here, for example). Now, Nicholas Gruen is leading a taskforce on Government 2.0. The goal of the taskforce is to reform government to do just that. Sounds great. True to Nicholas’s ‘out of the box’ type of management, there is a blog, wiki and other stuff that is an integral part of the taskforce. This Sydney Morning Herald article describes what they are doing.
[DDET But I have a quibble with one aspect of that report. Read more.]
Among Dr Gruen’s favourite sites already making government information freely available is one in which the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages enables intending parents to check the popularity of names in each year from 1900.
Peter Martin approvingly directs us to the site in question as exemplifying the point of Government 2.0. Here it is. What it shows is a time series graph of 1200 popular baby names over the last century. You can hover over bits of it and find out just how many NSW babies had a name in a given year. Seems need until you ask yourself one question: what is this telling me? Near as I can tell, it is telling you that the birth rate has changed over time and that there are clumps of popularity-weighted boys and girls names at different parts of the alphabet — (yes, the plot is in alphabetical order). So perhaps it is a more convenient way of looking at name popularity than this.
Now, to be fair, it is an example of how data might be presented than is different from what is usually the case within government and so that is fine. Indeed, it is based on this. But the point is that it shows us that we can do better and indeed, it is precisely why the government needs to free the information so that others can provide it in a useful form and innovate on it.
So here is the question: is the NSW baby names data set publicly available as the SMH suggests? I made a few inquiries (and will try and confirm them officially and post an update) but it appears not. You can’t just ask for the data-set so that you can host it on your own site in a useable fashion. It all still resides with the NSW government. So rather than being what the goal of this taskforce, it is, in fact, a clear example of the problem. It is not making information freely available at all. That would require a ‘click here to download a spreadsheet of the data’ button. I’ll be looking out for it.