Heat goes on government for open data access

A small group of New Zealanders wanting to open up government data for use have started a website giving access to a number of datasets that they say are difficult to find through official sources.

The first project of opengovt.org.nz, the Open Data Catalogue, guides people to datasets that are created and maintained by government agencies, but are hard to access and subject to payment and/or restrictive licence agreements, dictating how the data can be redistributed, says principal Glen Barnes.

"The Open Data Catalogue is an attempt to classify where this information resides, who 'owns' it, what licence it is distributed under and if it is free or not," states an explanation on the catalogue website.

It is not part of the exercise to provide a way for users to avoid legitimate payment or violate the restrictions, Barnes says, but the organisation "is encouraging people to question those terms", he says.

The question of payment and commercial reuse of government data could be vexed. It was a subject discussed at a Government Information Services (GOVIS) workshop on "re-use of government-held non-personal data" in February this year, where technologist Nat Torkington was one of the panelists.

Vikram Kumar of the State Services Commission, summed up the potential conflict: "Government data is taxpayer-funded. People expect data to be made available free of cost. Yet agencies aren't funded to make data available."

This argues a role for private companies in repackaging the data, but it's a question of defining an acceptable, suitable business model, panellists said. Taxpayers may be unwilling to pay even a small charge for repackaged government data, arguing they've already paid for it.

"I think it's reasonable to charge for the copying of information, but not for its [original] preparation," Torkington said. He compared the funding model to open-source software, where after a while the necessary tools for repackaging and exposing the data will be readily available, so the process will be low-cost.

It makes sense to charge for repackaged data because the repackaging has taken some effort, said panellist Adrian Holvaty; he runs everyblock.com, which taps into public records in the US to provide neighbourhoods with pertinent information. Everyblock pays for government data and charges users for it. The US Freedom of Information Act accommodates this, he said.

There has been a movement worldwide towards opening up government datasets, says Barnes, and New Zealand's State Services Commission has made some effort in that direction. But the OpenGovt founders think it isn't moving fast enough and decided to "hack together a website" to fill the gap.

Official channels like the government portal www.govt.nz do not give access to many of the datasets pointed to from the Open Data Catalogue, Barnes says. The catalogue's contents range from long-term economic time series maintained by Treasury to the register of radio frequencies.

The other prime mover of the effort is internationally known author and O'Reilly conference organiser Torkington, but there are quite a few others making a contribution, says Barnes. The Open Data Catalogue site invites anyone with knowledge of the location of other government datasets to contribute pointers. The site has been up since the beginning of June.

The main opengovt.org.nz site includes a wiki and discussion groups, from which it is clear that the group is still debating the interests and motives of its members and is still in the process of establishing a common direction.

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