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Nat Torkington, data hound

In a Wellington corridor, Nat Torkington laid down a challenge—and sparked a small revolution. Julie Starr reveals how a loose collection of determined Kiwi innovators are using public data to change the ways that politicians, public servants, companies and people communicate. But is the country ready? Plus streetwise and now open.

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Photograph by Mike Heydon • Designed by Adrian Clapperton

In a Wellington corridor, Nat Torkington laid down a challenge—and sparked a small revolution. reveals how a loose collection of determined Kiwi innovators are using public data to change the ways that politicians, public servants, companies and people communicate. But New Zealand is late to the public data party—so is our government ready?

A lot can happen in a hallway. In May, as a government-focussed IT conference drew to a close in Wellington, a dozen people gathered in a corridor outside the conference rooms. They shared a common frustration.

There were actually two conferences at Govis09, says Dan Randow, a collaboration consultant and one of the hallway posse. There was the official conference, and the one happening in the corridors and in a backchannel on Twitter.

Govis09’s official theme was ‘user-generated government’ but there was little interaction in evidence, Randow says. “There wasn’t much Internet access and an even greater shortage of power points. There was a cluster of people hanging around the one power point in the room.”

The same cluster, more or less, wound up outside in the hall. Dissatisfied with the rhetoric, they talked about how the Internet might be used to make government more transparent, easier to engage with, and its data more readily available so people could make use of it in meaningful new ways. Not official information, mind you, interpreted and edited for ‘context’ or brevity, but data: the raw bits and bytes.

Think of a cellphone app that tells you in real time when your bus is coming (and not when it should have come), or a website that tells you what your MP is voting on and lets you email them on the spot, or a mobile app that tells you the hygiene rating of restaurants near your hotel, or a site that pulls together housing, rating, transport and crime data so you can check out the neighbourhood your elderly parents are about to move into.

These are not things that a stretched and risk-averse government agency is likely to create, but enthusiastic developers certainly will. Give them the data and they will build it.

I see no reason why we can’t turn government inside out, so to speak –Finance minister Bill English

Talk is cheap, though, so a challenge was laid down in the corridor: let’s not just talk about this. Let’s not wait for the government to respond. Let’s just do it.

The challenger was Nat Torkington, a luminary in the geek world who consults to web startups, works with O’Reilly Media in the US, runs Kiwi Foo Camp and had been looking for ways to kick-start open democracy web projects in New Zealand.

It’s an idea whose time has come, Torkington says—for two reasons. “There’s the technology story and there’s the political story. The technology story is that Web 2.0 was such a huge success with all of the social media sites taking off, with YouTube and with all these incredible ways of directly reaching out and engaging people.

“And people said, well, the same things that made business successful—the same things that made Amazon successful and Ebay successful and Google successful—maybe these same things could change the way we do democracy.

“The political story is that the political cynics and the political idealists both have the same goal for different reasons. The idealists say, well, more transparency is good, more participation is good, more engagement, collaboration, those are good things and we need more of them.

“The cynics say the politicians lost huge amounts of political capital in Iraq, so politicians from every quarter are now having to claw back some measure of goodwill from the people. And the easiest way to do that is to be seen to be a believer in transparency and openness and participation—those same things the idealists have been saying.”

Of course, New Zealand politicians haven’t lost much political capital over Iraq, but it’s a different story overseas. In January US president Barack Obama, in almost his first act in office, issued a Presidential Memorandum on Transparency and pledged to “disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.” It’s also been backed with significant funding. The administration itself funds sites such as www.data.gov, which aims to “provide the American public with unprecedented access to useful, unfiltered government data.”

The US tradition of philanthropy also kicks in. The Sunlight Foundation, for example, funds umpteen open democracy web projects in the US. It roared into life in 2006 with a $3.5 million donation from its co-founder Michael Klein and has picked up millions more from donors since. In the UK a non-profit called mySociety has launched a parcel of open democracy websites on the back of its own fundraising efforts, and the UK government has started a project to consider how to open up its data usefully.

And what about all the data that New Zealand government and councils gather? What are New Zealanders doing?

“Sitting around with their hands in their pants,” according to Torkington.

“There’s www.data.gov in the US, the UK hired Tim Berners-Lee—who invented the bloody web—and he’s going to be putting their data online, Australia’s got money behind its Government 2.0 taskforce, and New Zealand’s sitting around … doing nothing.

“What’s going on? Why are we always the retarded cousin? It’s a small country, we should be able to do this.”

Earlier this year Torkington wrote “a couple of castigating letters” to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance and other MPs, pointing out New Zealand’s lag on the issue. In the absence of a decisive response, he figured the best way forward was to get on with it and show how quickly and cheaply it could be done. “I came away from [Govis] thinking, well there are ten, 12 people who are keen on this. Why don’t we just fucking do it and we’ll run it as an open-source kind of deal where it’s all on a shoestring. And then when we’ve got a couple of wins we can go hunting for dollars.”

Torkington was about to head Stateside, but he’d already found some like-minded accomplices in the Govis hallway, and an unlikely alliance was taking shape: web developers, public servants, consultants and entrepreneurs. So what drew these people—to Govis, the hallway, the barcamp and beyond? And why are we hearing about transparent government and open government data all of a sudden?

Mark Harris, a former government staffer turned consultant, recalls Torkington’s challenge: “Nat said, ‘Well I’m going to be in America’ and pointed at me, and that’s how I got involved.”

Harris, too, was impatient to see creative use of public data in New Zealand. In the public service, he had seen first-hand its potential. “It’s around knowing what can be done and knowing what is being done, and feeling disappointed in the extreme.” Obama’s memo “was a huge symbolic statement”, he says, and one that gave fresh impetus to open government web initiatives world over.

New Zealand’s sitting around … doing nothing. What’s going on? Why are we always the retarded cousin?

Courtney Johnston, web manager at the National Library, was drawn partly because “philosophically I believe it’s a good thing. And I just like helping make things happen.”

Johnston knew how much could be achieved in a day given the right people and a few basics such as food and enough power points. She was not long back from the Full Code Press competition in Australia where she’d been a member of the triumphant Code Blacks, New Zealand’s national team. She was still buzzing on the adrenalin that comes from spending 24 hours non-stop building a website from scratch for a chosen charity. “I wanted more of that intensity,” she says.

The decision was made to have a barcamp (or ‘unconference’) and a hackfest—where practical work is done on specific projects—immediately after. Others pitched in and the events went ahead in August with a strong turnout.

Torkington says: “At some point this is going to cost money and needs to be supported by somebody other than me. But for the time being I’m paying the bills, a couple of people have coughed up donations and we had a fundraiser to buy a domain, open.org.nz.”

Open.org.nz and an associated wiki are the centrepiece of several projects including the Open Data Catalogue, the brainchild of Torkington and Glen Barnes, whose day job is the property data site Zoodle.co.nz. The catalogue lists available government datasets along with the format, licence and any associated costs—useful stuff for programmers who need ‘machine readable’ data and would otherwise have to wade through hundreds of government websites to find it.

Work is under way on local versions of mySociety’s fairly self-explanatory FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow, a site that lets people submit requests for information from government agencies and then tracks the requests. Here, it will be called fyi.org.nz—For Your Information.

Of particular interest to Torkington is a set of requirements for a local equivalent of data.gov: “We’ve shown government that there’s a demand for it because we’ve got a huge amount of interest and attention. Let’s finish the job by essentially writing the requirements for them.”

Torkington is clearly a driving force. Ask how people got involved and repeatedly you hear ‘Well, Nat started a mailing list’ or ‘Nat sent out some emails’ or ‘Nat suggested we have a meeting’. But there’s also a power of energy and commitment from others. Barnes took the Open Data Catalogue from idea to launch in two weeks on the back of “20 hours of work in the evenings”. Christchurch programmer Jonathan Hunt is building FixMyStreet.org.nz in his spare time and hopes to launch it in the next couple of months (see ‘Streetwise’ below). Rowan Crawford, another programmer, is working on For Your Information.

There are others, of course—other democracy sites, data sites, plans and people.

There’s even a New Zealander in London weighing in. Rob McKinnon gets up early on each day that our Parliament sits to make sure his site, TheyWorkForYou.co.nz, is picking up the Hansard feed properly.

McKinnon launched TWFY in 2005 and has since run it off his own coin. It pays homage to its UK namesake—a mySociety site—and to a local forerunner set up by the Virtual Democratic Infrastructure Group.

Since 2002, Vdig.net has taken the Hansard and made it searchable for free. TheyWorkForYou.co.nz adds profiles of MPs and party voting records, tracks bills and more. But McKinnon points out that Sunlight sites in the US have leapfrogged ahead of his despite starting much later, because they have funding.

The Ministry of Economic Development found spatial data added an estimated $1.2 billion in productivity benefits to the economy last year. Tantalisingly, it added that if access to data were easier we might have seen an additional $481 million in productivity-related benefits, generating “at least $100 million in government revenue”

Hunt makes a similar point. “The closest we have to anything of that nature would be something like the DigitalNZ hackfest, where a government agency puts a few pizzas and beers on the table and developers come along and find out a bit more about the API and do some code. But to the best of my knowledge that’s about as close as we’ve got to any kind of co-ordinated initiative.”

Co-ordinated is the key word. The open.org.nz crowd readily acknowledges there is already some useful data available and that people in government agencies are often supportive.

DigitalNZ, which is working to make ‘human readable’ data such as images and literature easier to find and share, is highly regarded. The National Library is similarly appreciated. The State Services Commission is working on a framework, NZGOAL, for releasing data and offers practical guidelines on what can safely be released and how. Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry for the Environment have made data available, as has LINZ—some for free, some at a cost.

LINZ commissioned a report, with DOC and the Ministry of Economic Development, which found spatial data added an estimated $1.2 billion in productivity benefits to the economy last year. Tantalisingly, it added that had access to data been easier we might have seen “an additional $481 million in productivity-related benefits”, generating “at least $100 million in government revenue”.

So far, however, there’s been nothing at a ministerial level to suggest a co-ordinated approach across government, let alone a statement of intent at the level of Obama’s. But we may have seen a nod in the general direction.

In a recent speech to state services staff Finance Minister Bill English made reference to ‘inside out government’. He said that in the case of non-sensitive information, “I see no reason why we can't turn government inside out, so to speak, and make the same data and information available to those outside of government.

“Government can tap wider resources in the community to analyse and use government data to help solve problems and produce insights. A ministerial committee is exploring this concept.”

Is this the beginning of a co-ordinated approach? Does the ministerial committee have teeth? Budget? Enquiries so far have left us unable to confirm who’s on the committee or whether it has concrete plans. Events in the Pacific overtook the finance minister (then also acting PM) shortly before we went to print, which prevented us further exploring ‘inside out government’ with him.

So for now it’s a case of watch this space, or, perhaps, of pitching in with those “ten, 12 people” from the Govis09 hallway and getting on with building something.

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Photograph by David Baird

Streetwise

Frustrated with potholes, bad driving and cars parked in wrong places, it occurred to Jonathan Hunt a year or so ago that there should be a simple way for cyclists to tell councils when something needs fixing. He figured his iPhone would be perfect. “You could spot a problem, take a photo while you’re on your bike and flag it to the council.”

But there was no simple way to do so. The council website had a form of sorts, but no way of uploading images and no sign of whether the report would be tracked. ‘It was like sending it off into a black hole.”

Hunt, a developer based in Christchurch, later heard about FixMyStreet, a UK website that makes it really simple to alert your council to holes and hazards in your streets. The site prompts you for the what, where and when of the problem, then automatically sends a report to the relevant council department in the required format. It made perfect sense to Hunt.

The final impetus for creating a New Zealand version of the site came when Hunt got riled up over the section 92a copyright controversy and headed off to Govis09. There he met Nat Torkington et al, joined the Open.org.nz mailing list and finally decided to create a local version of FixMyStreet.

“It’s a classic case of scratch your own itch. I’d be a user of FixMyStreet if it was there now, and I’ve got the web skills to create it.”

Hunt is building the site in his spare time and aims to have it launch-ready this year. You can track his progress at wiki.open.org.nz.