Government Technology Services head Stephen Crombie has signalled a willingness to expand free online access to government databases.
He told the audience at last month’s CIO Summit, in Auckland, that two pilot projects are under way as the next step in extending data access.
The Open New Zealand movement (www.open.org.nz) recently called attention, with its Open Data Catalogue, to the amount of potentially valuable government data that is invisible to the public, hard to locate or, as its website says, “hidden behind pay-walls and restrictive license agreements”.
Crombie acknowledges the potential for controversy in allowing private companies to make a profit from distributing government data; but he points out that Statistics NZ and the Department of the Environment are already providing data free of charge.
“There certainly is a lot of interest and you actually see a number of agencies kicking this off now,” he says.
“There’s a lot of policy work being done on Creative Commons [licensing] and other mechanisms to ensure that it does happen,” Crombie says. “Within GTS, we’re going to have a couple more pilots and learn from the experience of other agencies, but certainly this government is very interested in getting this journey on the road in a very controlled but innovative manner. So I think it’s [a question of] ‘watch this space’.”
He points out that a trend towards opening access to government data is international, US President Barack Obama having already made policy moves towards freeing up significant databases.
The Government Technology Service, part of the Department of Internal Affairs, took over many of the ICT service delivery functions formerly performed by the State Services Commission on 1 July.
Crombie also signalled interest in creating a private cloud of government IT services. That hint came after he was challenged fiercely by consultant Ian Howard of I&A Services on Crombie’s contention that government was delivering good online services to citizens.
“I would suggest that’s far from the case,” Howard said. He asked when a commitment to IT interoperability would be included as part of the contract of government agency chief executives “and secondly, when are you going to establish a government datacentre as a private cloud and offer shared services through that mechanism?”
Crombie deferred to the State Services Commission as the appropriate body to enforce the first condition, though he said from his work with chief executives they all appeared conscious of the need for interoperability with other agencies.
The private cloud, he said, is “definitely on the radar”. He referred to the Ministry of Economic Development’s moves towards procurement reform in computing hardware among other categories of goods.
“Also in their sights potentially, is the use of private cloud and datacentres and I think that’s an area that would be considered.”
“All of these things require very strong agency engagement [in] a very disparate environment,” he said. Any cloud-based shared services have to have regard to the timing of agency upgrade cycles, Crombie said, so there would be some lead-time before such a plan could be put in place.
Late last month, New Zealand National Radio’s Sunday programme held a discussion on open government data, featuring Andy Neale who runs the National Library’s Digital NZ project and former government CIO Laurence Millar, as well as interviews with Jock Philips of Te Ara, the NZ encyclopeia, Brenda Leeuwenberg of the NZ On Screen film and television archive and Jason Darwin of Victoria University’s Electronic Text Centre (NZETC).
Two stumbling blocks that kept coming up in the discussion were copyright and Google.
Darwin says the 200,000 pages on NZETC are predominantly either 19th and early 20th century work or recent “born digital” material, with a large gap in the middle, comprising documents whose access rights are still under negotiation.
The difficulty users experience in finding government data is at least partly owing to their reliance on Google, even using the search engine as their “browser”, said several speakers on the programme.
This makes retrieval dependent on Google’s capabilities and the willingness of database managers to make their material visible enough to climb Google’s rankings. A lot of New Zealand’s information consequently remains “buried digital treasure”, says Neale.
Millar cited the example of the general availability of human-genome data in sparking valuable drug research, as demonstrating the value to society of releasing public-sector data.