OpenGovt gathering disappoints

Some "Unconference" attendees wanted more detail

The Microsoft-sponsored OpenGovt 2010 conference was billed as an 'Unconference', but many who attended found it too buttoned up.

The event in Wellington last week was held to discuss the opening up of government resources of digital data and was billed as an "unconference", but it started with a firm "conference" flavour. Instead of the expected freewheeling, loosely organised format with topics suggested on the fly, the event began with an address from ICT Minister Steven Joyce and a panel discussion, with a set of conventional presentations in the afternoon. This clearly disappointed a number of attendees, who expected less formality.

Only after the panel discussion did the event loosen up to some degree, when a set of topics decided on by vote before the event were discussed in breakout sessions. These ranged from the security implications of opening up government data, to the use of appropriate standards to facilitate data exchange and from inhibitors to government agencies' release of data to the "digital divide", preventing some citizens from accessing opened-up data.

Government agency representatives present would not only inform themselves through the event, but "give themselves permission" to begin opening up their data practically, says moderator Julian Carver. Government departments are famously risk-averse, said several speakers, and need to feel more comfortable about the risks of releasing data more widely and allowing greater public participation in decisions.

Some practical ideas emerged for an easy start to more public participation in the process of government. The Official Information Act could be supplemented by a website that puts up copies of all information released under the Act so others can make use of it without lodging their own request, political blogger David Farrar suggested.

Some elements of the framework for distribution of government data are already in place; NZGOAL, the New Zealand Government Open Access and Licensing framework lays out standard practices for licensing of data to other organisations. When it comes to an open data format to guarantee that the recipient will understand the data in the way the donor intended, the situation is less straightforward. The eGIF (e-Government Interoperability Framework) is aging and has not been updated to take account of recent technology, largely through a lack of resources, claimed delegates in the open-standards breakout group who have been close to the effort.

However, there is more to data sharing with the public than consistency of file formats, the group decided. Consistent terminology is also needed; an invoice should mean the same document and a boat the same class of object to all government agencies and the citizens with whom they communicate.

This, however, could be difficult when many of the definitions are enshrined in statutes inconsistent with one another.

Open consultation with the public will lead to better policy, said Keith Taylor of Inland Revenue in one of the panel sessions. Government will get better advice by talking to a wider group of people beyond the "usual suspects", such as public servants and business organisations.

People could be encouraged to become involved through, for example, snap survey forms prominently placed on a government website they were visiting for another purpose.

A basic computer is now so cheap that every household could be provided with one through government funding, a delegate suggested.

However, skills and inclination to use the laptop and internet are another matter attendees pointed out; one delegate suggested a crucial component of any open-government initiative is training for citizens in "critical thinking".

With openness on the agenda the use of open-source software to assist open data provision at low cost was debated in one group; its report back, however, pointed to possible problems with interface to legacy software as well as potential liability problems for failure. Tendering for an open-data system as for any government ICT service is an expensive business and open-source developers might find it hard to get a foot in the door, he suggested.

This view was received cynically by some tweeting from the event as evidence of influence by sponsor Microsoft, which fielded a number of delegates. However, overt presentation of the Microsoft line was rare.

Continuing contact is needed to prevent interest generated by the (un)conference fading quickly once delegates returned to the daily concerns of work, Carver said. As part of this effort, delegate Philip Lyth has undertaken to organise a get-together of interested parties and early public-sector adopters of open data ideas.

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