Gov2.0 in the Age

I have an opinion piece in The Age today on Government 2.0.

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Taskforce needs to loosen grip on hidden public data

Joshua Gans, The Age, 6th July 2009 (see also WA Today)

The Government’s tight control of public information is outdated.

UNLOCKING the information collection by governments — and deciding what information could be of social value — is the aim behind the new ‘Government 2.0’ taskforce headed by economist Nicholas Gruen.

The taskforce’s mission results from a key recommendation in the Cutler Review on Innovation — a taskforce that Dr Gruen served on.

In BusinessDay last August , I highlighted an example with regard to the free availability of public toilet location information — also mentioned in the Cutler review because that information had actually been collected as part of the National Continence Management Strategy and gave Australia perhaps the most comprehensive toilet location map in the world.

However, that information was provided only in ways the Federal Government chose to and it could not easily be viewed on a mobile device.

That has improved, but not to the extent of allowing developers to match the information with devices in a truly usable manner.

Google Maps might have been invented in Australia and they can pull all manner of data — except our toilet locations.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Schedules for public transport, TV and radio programming, emergency room information and traffic sits locked within the Government. So the mission of the taskforce to find ways of bringing it out is clearly a critical one.

They will face challenges. Politicians and bureaucrats do not give up control of information lightly. The taskforce will hear excuses.

First, it will be claimed that free use of the data means the Government cannot certify its integrity. That may be the case, but is it really necessary for it to give such certification?

Surely our consumer laws are strong enough to accept clear labelling from those repackaging the information that things may not be up to date. Search for exchange rates on free sites and the disclaimer is there.

Even so, the taskforce should not settle for that. It should be the duty of the Government to not just post some spreadsheets on a website but to work out protocols that, if changes occur, allow those drawing from the information to update it accordingly.

Twitter and Facebook provide developers with this ability in real time. Surely, the Government should be expected to do the same thing?

Second, there are issues of privacy.

Dr Gruen highlighted NSW information on popular baby names from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages as an area where governments are getting it right. But that same information excludes really unpopular names because they might identify (presumably the birth year) of certain people.

That might be possible if your name is derived from Klingon but surely that isn’t a strong reason to limit searches. For instance, you could identify unpopular names by decade rather than year.

These demonstrate the challenges that might come from complacency. But Dr Gruen’s baby names’ example highlights another. He was enamoured with a particular representation of the data as a graph showing 1200 baby names over time. You can hover over bits of it and find out just how many NSW babies had a name in a given year. Perhaps it was neat technologically but it was, in many respects, of no real value. At best, it told you trends of gender-based names around certain areas of the alphabet.

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 improve on it.

The problem is that when it comes to NSW baby names, despite the flashy graph, that data is locked within Government. You cannot request a database with the underlying information. And so no one other than Government can present it to us in a form that is actually of use.

I won’t speculate on what that use might be. I just hope this is not what the taskforce has in mind because it highlights precisely the problem rather than the goal.

To be fully successful, this taskforce will have to change the default position of government from tight control to open access. That said, I would be happy if beside every representation of information, there was a ‘click here to download a spreadsheet’ button. If they can’t get that, this taskforce cannot claim to have succeeded in any measure.

Joshua Gans is an economics professor at Melbourne Business School. He contributes to the economics.com.au blog.

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