Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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The (Australian) Govt 2.0 Taskforce – introduction and initial thoughts

June 26th, 2009 by Seb Chan

Well the cat is out of the bag and I’m one of the fifteen members of the Government 2.0 Taskforce! And I’m excited by the possibilities.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make it down to Canberra for the launch at Publicsphere2 but I “watched it live on Twitter“.

So what is the Taskforce doing?

Its work falls into two streams. The first relates to increasing the openness of government through making public sector information more widely available to promote transparency, innovation and value adding to government information.

The second stream is concerned with encouraging online engagement with the aim of drawing in the information, knowledge, perspectives, resources and even, where possible, the active collaboration of anyone wishing to contribute to public life.

Importantly, the Taskforce will not just provide advice. It will be able to fund initiatives and incentives which may achieve or demonstrate how to accomplish government 2.0 objectives.

As regular readers know I work in the soft part of government – a part that most people probably wouldn’t even consider as ‘government’. That has its pros and cons.

On the upside it has meant that the government funded cultural sector – libraries especially – have become pretty adept at sharing data and making it available in standardised formats. Our very own National Library of Australia is one of the world leaders in fact. Museums tend to lag – our ‘collections’ of data are far less standardised and are by nature less ‘collaborative’ and more ‘competitive’.

It doesn’t help that we’re encouraged to be ‘competitive’ and find new ways of ‘generating income’ beyond getting people into our buildings. This means we have gift shops, cafes as revenue generators, but also publishing divisions where we look for revenue generation in the data (content) we hold which, until recently, has meant locking it down – yes, even the public domain stuff. We’re only just realising that opening up our data also opens up a blue ocean (and the world doesn’t end).

My team’s recent work with cross-government data (which you will see much more of shortly) has been fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time. Fascinating in that it has revealed that there is an enormous amount of locked up, devalued data out there; but heartbreaking in that its liberation, or even value creation, is prevented by a combination of unsupported legacy systems, an unholy alliance of Copyright and ‘privacy’ concerns, and just a lack of ‘policy alignment’ and resources – the “oh, that’s not our core business so we’ll charge you cost recovery on giving you access to that” problem.

Also, we’ve quickly realised that you are often working with something akin to 6 different interlocking jigsaw puzzles, each missing 20% of the most crucial bits. To provide a useful picture of a location (if you want to deliver mobile services), a period in time (for historical comparisons and trends), or a subject matter – often requires data from multiple agencies in different spheres of government (in Australia – local, state, federal) and that if one of these refuses then the whole is let down greatly (or made meaningless). This is what impresses me so much about Adrian Holovaty’s work with Everyblock – that Everyblock beautifully hides all the difficult, unkempt, manually wrangled datasets that lie beneath it; or Open Australia and MySociety’s original TheyWorkForYou.

We’ve also learnt that raw data is useful to other developers but that whilst projects are still measured in terms of impact on citizens (of whom developers are only a small subset), government projects will continue to be all about the presentation layer and not the release of the actual data behind it. This is relatively easily remedied – do both is probably the logical way forward.

The very recent Stimulus Projects Map on the NSW Government portal that now shows the locations of projects on a map could have easily also released the KML data as an optional download. The project’s success then could be measured by the use of the Stimulus Map on the original site as well as any third party uses of the data too.

New models for measurement and reporting is something we’ve been thinking a lot about now that part of our photographic collection is also on Flickr as well as on our own site – and it gets roughly 20x the usage on Flickr. Does government – our funders – value that as much as us putting it on our own website? what about other citizens and stakeholders (Wikimedia Australia’s Liam Wyatt has an interesting things to say on this)?

Likewise, Joshua Gans criticism of the NSW Baby Names Explorer that my team worked on is entirely justified – “why not release the data?”. Indeed. If we had owned the data we would have . . . we initially had to scrape it form its source to build the prototype! As I wrote in an email relayed to Joshua, the project was about offering an alternative visualisation solution than releasing the actual dataset. Building an alternative visualisation was intended to provide better access to a few single use cases of personalised trend data (“how are the names I am thinking of calling my child trending?”). These were the kinds of questions that were left unanswered on the Births Deaths and Marriages annual league tables, and it was hoped that a new way of looking at the same data might inspire Births Deaths and Marriages to free up the raw data to others – making services for prospective parents isn’t anywhere near their core business. I say ‘hoped’ because of the plethora of roadblocks that had to be navigated even to get a (inside government) third party visualisation of births data online.

So, dear readers, there’s going to be a bit of a forking going on this blog shortly.

I expect that most of my ‘open data’ and ‘social media and government’ posts will end up over at the Taskforce blog – so you might want to grab the RSS if you are interested – whilst the volume of posts here on Fresh & New may decrease as a temporary consequence.

Anyway I’m really looking forward to working on the Taskforce over the coming months and if regular readers have something to contribute then please get in touch.

Tags: 5 Comments

  • Great post Seb. Thx.

  • Hi Seb,

    Data is definitely a tricky issue in government – as has been the governance around online engagement by departments or individual public servants.

    However in both cases there are emerging international examples of best practice which illustrate that the world doesn’t end if the reins are loosened.

    A side benefit is increased public sector and private sector innovation, which I think should be considered one of the underlying goals of openness and transparency in government. The economic benefits of increasing innovation are easier to measure and quantify.

    I am looking forward to seeing what the taskforce says, what it does and, particularly, how the public sector responds.

    Cheers,

    Craig

  • I heard a Googler mention the other day that 50% of the visits to their maps system are via embedded maps on 3rd party sites. They are viewing this as a huge boost in uptake and trying to work out how to replicate this success by opening up in other areas.

    This concept may be counter intuitive at first it’s great that someone on the Gov 2.0 taskforce will be advocating it from “inside the tent”.

    Congrats & good luck.

  • Angelina Russo

    Congratulations Seb. I will follow this group with interest. So many issues and opportunities. #gov2au

  • Good luck. A worthy enterprise. You have to start somewhere. Maybe important enough to have to blog less here.

    I’ve already seen some criticism to some stuff from that taskforce, but don’t let the bastards grind you down.

    One of my favourite, and relatively low tech, examples of open data and government is the publication of the minutes of the Montetary Policy Meetings of the Reserve Bank Board.

    That’s the meeting which sets Australia’s interest rate.

    It used to be regarded as so hush hush, so top secret that to even hint at the deliberations at a meeting could unduly effect capital markets and therefore cause terrible damage to our nation’s economy.

    But since December 2007 they have been published for all to see two weeks after the meeting thus giving people who work in capital markets a very good idea of what goes on, and moreso, what is likely to go on in the immediate future.

    Turns out a transparent market makes for a smoother economy.

    The concerns which previously prevented the release of such meetings’ minutes turned out to be completely baseless.

    http://www.rba.gov.au/MonetaryPolicy/RBABoardMinutes/2009/index.html

    I think this is powerful example to counter the naysayers.

    And thanks for the Baby Names trend index. I know people who’ve used it, good work from your team.

    Nice to see Dr. Gruen was working hard @ 2:16am while most of the rest of Australia was asleep.