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Australia's Open Govt Data Drive
Source: futuregov.asia
Source Date: Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Focus: ICT for MDGs
Country: Australia
Created: Sep 05, 2010

The economic value of government information can increase four-fold within a year if it is made freely available to public. Its social value could increase by even more. So thinks Peter Harper, Chief Operating Officer of Australia’s Bureau of Statistics, who says that public services are on the “cusp of a revolution” driven by open government data.

Harper, who is a member of Australia’s Government 2.0 Taskforce which led to the country’s Declaration of Open Government in July (2010), said that too much government information is still unavailable to the public, and when it is, it is difficult to find or use.

“Keeping government information within government will not help achieve our aspirations for a first class public service,” said Harper. “Information is the lubricant of society. Without it, our lives would grind to a halt. All of government can and should provide more information to the public.”

Australia’s Declaration of Open Government espouses three principles: informing, engaging and participating. Without open access to public data, all three are very difficult to achieve, Harper said.

“Government information should be, where possible, free as in beer and free as in speech,” he said. “It should be available free of charge, and people should be able to share it freely.”

Harper acknowledged that there were a number of barriers to overcome, cost being one. While he admitted that the cost of launching and maintaining open data can be “substantial”, he insisted that the value of data would not be maximised if the public is charged to use it.

“Mount the argument for making information free when you can,” he urged officials.

Licensing is another obstacle. “Information is a public good. One person’s consumption of it will not reduce its value for someone else,” Harper noted. “Interaction between users of this information is a key part of its value. But copyright does not allow free sharing.”

Harper pointed to the nonprofit organisation Creative Commons as a source of inspiration for how government information can be made sharable while adhering to the laws of commercial copyright.

Government information should be readily discoverable and easy to use. “If the data can’t be indexed, it might as well not exist. It needs to be machine readable and based on open standards. If the data is gobbledegook or incorrectly labeled, there could be unfortunate consequences,” he warned.

For this reason, metadata (data about data, which helps it be understood and appropriately used) is “fundamental to open data initiatives,” he said.

Another major hurdle for open government data is privacy, although Harper insisted that agencies should not use this as an excuse to shelve open data initiatives.

“Yes, there are genuine privacy concerns. But my view is that privacy is a stalking horse for not making data available. There are plenty of tools available that allow you make data available and protect the information. I’d encourage all agencies to look into how information can be safely released.” (By Robin Hicks)
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