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Data democracy: Government moves toward information-sharing

Data democracy: Government moves toward information-sharing
The tide of transparency has reached our shores: the government is officially urging state agencies to open up their data troves to the public.

The goverment has moved to open up data to the publicNew Zealand is one step closer toward getting a more open transparent government as state agencies are urged to open up their data troves to the public.

Transparency is a good thing. It fosters better accountability, enabling regular Joes to access and engage with data – and to create meaningful ways in which to use it.

It seems the government agrees; today it issued a Cabinet paper and statement urging state sector agencies to release more of their data online.

"Today the government is releasing a declaration that clearly sets out our expectation that agencies should release all non-personal and unclassified data with high potential value for re-use," Finance Minister Bill English said.

That applies to all public service departments, the police, the Defence Force, the Parliamentary Counsel Office, and the SIS. State services agencies and the local government sector are also being encouraged to take part.

Tech consultant Nat Torkington, cofounder of the Open Data catalogue and champion for the cause, says it's good news, especially given the difficulty of effecting change within government.

"It makes 'being open' normal, unremarkable, and to be expected from government departments," he said.

While NZGOAL (the New Zealand Government Open Access Licensing framework) outlines guidelines for sharing information, the Cabinet declaration says data should be open by default.

"We won't see a flood of information released on Tuesday, but it will make it easier for current and future projects to release data and for citizens to request and access the information held by their government," he said.

"This isn't a magic bullet – there isn't one in government.  It is, however, another piece of the puzzle.  It's another tool to encourage and promote the release of government information to the community and business groups who can use it." 

According to English, examples of data being re-used include NZTA data on  third-party websites and iPhone apps, and the use of land and geospatial information for a variety of third-party commercial apps .

"Improving online access to government data has many potential benefits. These include creating business opportunities and new services, increasing government accountability and improving policy development by encouraging greater external analysis and community engagement," he said.

"Allowing research communities to reuse existing data for new purposes will also increase the value gained from state-funded research."

The Cabinet paper,  prepared in consultation with government departments, the Privacy Commissioner and Ombudsmen, the Law Commission, and open data advocates from the private sector, essentially proposes a culture shift within government. 

New Zealand has a strong history of open and transparent government that is internationally recognised. Greater openness is needed to maintain that credibility, keep pace with international developments, and meet increasing public expectations. Evidence also suggests that making useful public data available for re-use has widespread benefits to government, industry and the public. At the same time, technological and cultural advances make it cheaper and easier to do.

Its proposals were expected to help create value from innovative re-use of government data, build more effective government and strengthen public trust, it said.

"Business entrepreneurs are using data to develop innovative products and services, and create opportunities for new partnerships with government. There are also instances of re-use and remix resulting in new economic opportunities and policy directions."

Two years ago Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the Ministry for Economic Development (MED) commissioned a report to uncover the contribution spatial information makes to the economy.

Spatial information is data linked to a geographic location, making it possible to do things like use maps on mobile phones or send emergency services to the right addresses.

That report – Spatial information in the New Zealand economy - realising productivity gains – concluded use of spatial information added at least $1.2 billion to the economy in 2008 through productivity gains. Wider and better use of spatial information could lead to even greater productivity, to the tune of $500 million, it said.

The shift to a more open democracy is already happening. The US, UK, Canada and Australia already have websites to that end. Internal Affairs Minister Nathan Guy says technological advances over the past decade have led to government data becoming more open.

"However the release of data has been ad hoc and there has been no clear set of expectations. These steps build on New Zealand's long history of openness and recognise that this data effectively belongs to the public."

The government has also updated its principles for managing government-held data and information to include the following:

· Government data should be released proactively in accessible formats and licensed for re-use unless there are good reasons not to.
· Information should be well managed, trusted and authoritative.
· Data should be free, or where fees are necessary, reasonably priced.
· Personal and classified data or information will remain protected.

People can submit a request for currently unavailable high-value data they want to use at www.data.govt.nz. At the moment, the site holds about 1400 publicly available government datasets.