Wellington IT scene: Government moves data online

Treasury has now released all the data it can online

Government’s move to open up its stores of data to the public is proceeding steadily, with about 1700 datasets included in a directory on the data.govt.nz site, says Keitha Booth, who is in charge of the exercise. Treasury, for example, has released all of the data it can, including all its Budget data.

A report has been assembled from government agencies’ input on further data that they could release and on possible obstacles to opening up their data. That report is complete, but requires Cabinet approval before it can be released, which is likely to be in June.

Booth discloses one encouraging result; agencies were asked to identify any “insurmountable obstacles” to releasing data. None were identified. “There were obstacles”, Booth says, “but none that were reckoned insurmountable”.

The report will establish an initial benchmark and agencies will be asked to report regularly in the future on progress.

Government first committed to the plan in a Cabinet Paper on “open government” issued in August last year. The plan has a number of objectives, among them to “support open and transparent government”.

It is also designed to assist better policy making, and to provide high-value data, so the marketplace can add value to it, thus enabling economic growth, Booth says.

“We did a pilot at the Ministry for the Environment, where data supporting the national forestry standard was released at the same time as the consultation phase. It was a small pilot. What the MfE learned from that is they got earlier involvement from their key stakeholders” because the data was more readily available, Booth says. The open data team, however, is readying more case studies to demonstrate the viability and value of the concept.

“There’s a lot of interest in the transparency data that’s been released,” Booth says.

“It’s early days there, but the chief executives of departments now release their expenses every six months as a reusable spreadsheet. They’re all on data.govt.nz and there’s been a lot of interest in those; that’s meeting a transparency and accountability outcome.”

This and data releases such as Treasury’s are intended to encourage trust in government.

“In terms of efficiencies, what we’ve seen since Auckland Council was set up and since the Christchurch earthquakes is government presenting itself as a single entity. Government presented data for Auckland’s spatial plan as a single presentation of government – and likewise, the data used by Christchurch City Council and Cera and the various people involved in the recovery.”

The second in particular shows that “out of adversity has come an opportunity for government to work more efficiently with its own information,” she says.

The only agencies government can compel to release data are government departments, which have their own minister and come under the purview of the State Services Commission. Crown entities, reporting through as monitoring unit, are “encouraged” to release data and local government bodies are “invited” to participate. Those are the conventions imposed by the State Sector Act.

The exercise has started with the public service departments, because they are taxpayer funded, Booth says. “As we move out into the more distant government agencies, some of their data is third-party funded. We’re looking forward to working with them to work out what the issues are about the release of that information.”

When the open-government declaration was released, Cabinet approved an updated set of New Zealand data and information management principles. “They update an earlier set, approved by Cabinet in 1997, which had anticipated the internet, but these new ones acknowledge that the internet has changed the way people live and changed people’s expectations of how they interact with government,” Booth says. Those principles say unless information must be protected it must be open. The default is it must be open unless it’s personal, confidential or classified.”

The data must be properly managed, with stewards and custodians appointed to ensure this. “It must be licensed for reuse, so there’s absolute clarity that it can be legally reused. It must be ‘reasonably priced’. That means unless there’s a sound reason why not, the distribution of it should be free.”

Agencies will decide what data they release first and will be guided by requests members of the public can post on data.govt.nz. These may identify data of interest that has not yet been exposed, or even some that is not yet gathered.

New Zealand will not make the mistake of the US government and demand quotas for an amount of data to be released within a certain time, Booth says; that encourages release of data of dubious value.

A number of reuse exercises have already emerged “We asked government departments what they had released, what they planned to release and which of [the identified] outcomes they anticipated the release would meet, or move towards meeting. Then we asked them whether they had any case studies that showed the outcomes of that release.” The open data team is attempting to measure to what extent the desired outcomes will be satisfied “and at the moment the way of doing that is through case-studies of that reuse.

“We have been told about departments working with companies to release that data as an example, Koordinates [a private company] exposes and disseminate a lot of government information on behalf of government; they store it and host it – they have a geospatial system – and they release that data for government.

“There are companies who have been mashing up data that they get for free from government and on selling it. One example is a company called Zoodle. They take school zone data and property sales data properties for sale data and valuation data and they provide reports for people who want to know what’s for sale in a particular school zone. People pay for that; it’s a viable business.

“We have people like Keith Ng visualising government data; he’s done visualisations on stuff.co.nz and www.publicaddress.net on how Budget money is being prioritised and how priorities are changing over the last few Budgets. More recently, he’s done a visualisation of staff numbers, from information released by the SSC.”

An increasing number of applications for mobile devices are being created by third parties or in some cases in collaboration with a government department “For example there are at least five mobile apps working form New Zealand’s tide data. The data.govt.nz site tells users the location of the data; it may be in a government department or put up by a third party, like Koordinates, in machine readable open formats “Developers create apps which take that data and mash it up and make it accessible through smart phones. The Ministry of Education has one called NZ Schools, giving information about schools and facilities in their neighbourhood; that was released about two weeks ago. Inland Revenue announced an app last week, allowing people to access IRD through mobile phones.”

The open data exercise is coordinated by a steering committee; its terms of reference and all its minutes are available on the ict.govt.nz website. Exemplifying the principles of the exercise “we’ve been as open as we can ourselves,” Booth says.

The steering group is chaired by Colin MacDonald who, has now become chief executive of DIA and thereby Government CIO. He will release the report back from department in June, not in those roles, but in his role as chair of the committee.

The CEs on the steering group are the Government Statistician, the CEs of the Ministry for the Environment, Ministry of Science and Innovation, DIA, Linz and one Crown entity CE – Debbie Chin from Standards NZ.

“There’s a working group with people from about 14 agencies who’ve been working with me on this since end ’08. It’s become quite a mature project. Getting to this stage of having a report on adoption will show that releasing high-value public data for reuse is now being taken seriously.”

This is the second in a series of three articles about the Wellington IT scene. Tomorrow we look at the government's move to open data.

See also: Former IRD CIO turns tech entrepreneur and SilverStripe on why the capital nurtures IT talent.

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