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Appy Land or Geekistan? The Open Questions of Open Data

Under Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s watch, the way we engage with government agencies is set to go digital by default.

Speaking via prerecorded video at the GovInnovate conference in Canberra last week, Minister Turnbull issued an unequivocal call to action to the Australian Public Service to improve the quantity of government services delivered online, and enrich their quality, depth and level of engagement with citizens.

“Government 2.0” is a key plank in the Coalition’s Policy for E-Government and Digital Economy. It puts technology at heart of citizen engagement and will accelerate Australian public sector efforts to “engage online, make agencies transparent and provide expanded access to useful public sector data”.

On a practical level we’ll be seeing the introduction of application programming interfaces (APIs) for government websites – which, in plain terms, allows software programs to talk to each other, allowing developers to turn data into handy apps – and a re-booting of efforts to release government data in open, machine-readable formats.

Having signed up to the Open Government Partnership in May of this year, Australia is committed to promoting open data-led innovation, following, albeit rather tardily, the example of the US which now boasts almost 200,000 open government data sets and a thriving digital marketplace in the repackaging of open data as software service.

Australia’s data.gov.au now has a paltry 50 data sets, the minister noted.

Data consumption

The Seattle-based data infomediary Socrata is a good example of the kind of company to have emerged from this open innovation agenda. For a fee, they’ll host open data for public sector clients, adding new visualisation and mash-up tools that let citizens or developers to mix and match data, adding different contexts to “socially-enrich” the data.

Want to see this data in a map? Choose this view. Add some local government boundary info? Add this set. Want to appify the data? Developer, here’s your API.

The company calls it “the consumerisation of data” and, judging by the volume of new recruits to the company this year, there are no shortage of government clients signing up for the services.

Australian Government Chief Information Officer Glenn Archer, also speaking at the GovInnovate conference, wants companies like Socrata and locals like Nick Maher (the developer behind Sydney public transport app TripView) to “build their own solutions for the way citizens can interact with government”.

Opening up government data sets means there are new marketplaces for the design of public services, which in turn means governments can benefit from the tech-savvy skills of digital entrepreneurs. Don’t leave it up to a risk-adverse public servant to navigate the digital ecosystem – let the tech experts to the job.

(To find examples of an open data driven marketplace at work in Australia today, look no further than your chosen weather app, which accesses its data from Bureau of Meteorology website and repackages it with nice graphics and the like.)

On the agenda

It’s hard not to get excited by the promise of a more enriched and open digital ecosystem that makes the way we digitally interact with governments a whole lot better. But as we stand at the cusp of this open data-driven transformation, we should also take a deep breath and consider how “openness” is being used to drive public sector change.

Belarusian Evgeny Morozov, author of To Save Everything, Click Here, is not convinced the benefits of the open data agenda extend much beyond the “Kingdom of Geekistan”. He worries the level of political debate around terms like “open government” and “open data” has sunk to such a level that “just carrying your phone around might be an act of good citizenship”.

Drawing on the work of American legal scholar Julie Cohen, Morozov suggests the “information-processing imperative” has become so dominant it’s now synonymous with a “single, inevitable trajectory of forward progress”.

One of the problems with the way “openness” is treated in the Gov 2.0 agenda is that it’s never quite clear whether “open” is a means or an end.

If it’s a means to an end – for example, the interoperability and therefore resilience of software systems – then clearly this is not the same openness as government transparency, and will have little effect on the process of reducing government secrecy or corruption.

An “openness” that lets digital entrepreneurs manage the design and delivery of government services may improve usability, but it’s also a radical revisioning of the role of the public sector – a shift towards what Irish tech guru Tim O’Reilly coined “Government as Platform”, or what others might simply call “privatisation”.

If the “open government” agenda has more ambitious goals like government transparency and democratic participation, then this will require more than a healthy digital ecosystem. Opening up data alone does not necessarily equate to citizen engagement, appified or otherwise.

Morozov, who visited Australia recently as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, noted wryly in To Save Everything, Click Here:

For all we know, since the Nazis had an enviable train system, they’d be all for making their train data universally accessible.
While the influence of the “open innovation” agenda grows ever stronger, still the value and promise of “openness” remains an open question.

As our public servants and policy makers embark on this new phase of service design, reinventing government websites as platforms for co-creation, digital entrepreneurship and innovation, let’s not forget that citizen engagement is more than a double-click away.

First appeared on The Conversation, 3 December 2013

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Open access to publicly-funded culture? A Retroflective post #TBLdownunder

Fatima Measham is today credited with the top tweet for the Tim Berners-Lee Down Under Tour (otherwise known on Twitter as #tbldownunder). It reads:

Aside from inventing the world wide web, that’s pretty much the core of Berners-Lee’s message, and undoubtedly the motivation behind Pia Waugh’s hard work in bringing him to Australia this month: to ensure the web stays open and accessible to all.

At his City Talks speech to a packed audience of nerds and wanna-be nerds at Sydney’s Town Hall last night, Berners-Lee explained how in 2009 he spent most of his time trying to persuade people to be more open with the way they were publishing their data online.

Why Open Data?

Scientists, he explained, shouldn’t just publish articles, they should also publish the data behind the articles, because then this data can be better used by others. A published journal article is, in the language of the web, not a very useful piece of data, unlike raw data which can be linked through open data protocols (which go by curiously impenetrable sounding names like ‘Triple RDFs). That’s the logic of the Semantic Internet, a set of standards promoted by the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) to describing common data formats that enable the contents of published articles, stories, media and so forth to be properly describable in common languages, and in other words able to be re-used, shared and connected to other stories, articles, media, data published online.

It’s a re-assertion of the fundamental values of the internet, and, as Berners-Lee has said, “it’s huge: When you link data, not just documents, you get this really huge power out of it”.

So Berners-Lee was brought to Australia to bring us this word: the word of open, sharable data.

Open data policy hits academia

The shift towards open publishing formats is now well under way here, with the Australian Research Council announcing in December that publicly-funded research needs to be available through an open access journal within 12 months of publication. The ARC’s Open Access Policy released in January this year, is huge. It is huge not because it is going to completely and immediately re-write the rules of academic publishing (it won’t), but because it acknowledges that work directly funded by the taxpayer should be accessible to those who funded it: taxpayers.

Note the underlying logic here: to maximise the benefits of Australian investment in research for wider public benefit.

At this point we can see how the open data movement is not only about machines being able to better read and re-use data from other machines, but also about giving the public access to the outcomes of public investment. It’s a kind of marriage of convenience between nerdy programmers who want to be able to build better programs, and advocates of good public policy in the digital age who want to promote Australia’s culture of innovation and learning (of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive).

Recognition that the public have the right to access publicly-funded works has all kinds of ramifications for public investment programs across many diverse spheres, not only university research. You may care to cast your mind over the many different ways in which government funding is explicitly provided for the objective of generating private gains for commercial enterprise.

But you may also care to wonder how this concept of the public accessing publicly-funded works might apply to our cultural and media organisations. The ABC, for example.

What about Our ABC?

In 2012 the ABC celebrated its eightieth birthday. For 80 years the ABC has been funded by government to create radio programs, and then also television programs, and then also digital programming, that informs, entertains and educates all Australians. It is our national treasure, and indeed it is the ‘public square’ of our digital life.

The public value of the ABC stretches not only to its central place in the contemporary media landscape, but also to the public value of its past programming: the documentation of Australian life over 80 years which has captured the extraordinary changes to Australia’s way of life during the twentieth century and beyond.

I’ve had the pleasure of researching Sydney’s history using the ABC’s archives, and I have experienced first hand the wonder of listening to the euphoric sounds of VP Day in 1946 as recorded by Talbot Duckmanton in Martin Place, the chants of the Vietnam protesters as they congregated outside the Commonwealth Buidling (now Chifley Square) in 1968, the crackling of John Curtin announcing a war loan campaign at the Sydney Town Hall in 1942; the thousands and thousands of voices of everyday Australians, now passed from this world. I’ve been able to integrate these sounds into new works, to reflect on their place in the contemporary spaces of Sydney today, to share them with others.

But this first hand experience of exploring, sharing and re-using recordings capturing moments in Australian history is not an option for most Australians. The ABC has no remit to make its publicly-funded content available to the public after its initial broadcast. In the majority of cases you need to be a producer working for the ABC, or you need to pay sums of money to access an archival program. If you want to use a piece of this public recording in another work (that’s most likely also been publicly-funded) you will usually not only need to get permission from the original creator of the work (fair enough) but you will also need to pay the ABC for the ability to access and license the recording. ABC Commercial will not give access to highly sought after recordings easily. The same process will usually apply to other publicly-funded ‘memory institutions’, so behind the scenes we get these situations whereby publicly-funded institutions charge each other fees to access each other’s publicly-funded works.

It’s not an ideal situation but it’s a state of play cultural producers and historians get used to, in a way. There are small scale initiatives designed to open up access but they lack organisational reach and, importantly, secure funding. But need it always been this way?

Digital Public Space: Towards a better cultural archive

The BBC has spent the last five years working hard to address this very issue with other UK cultural organisations like the British Library, the British Museum and the British Film Institute. Together these organisations have been collaborating to find the best way to provide the widest possible access to the complete range of digitised material that they create or curate. The initiative is called ‘Digital Public Space‘.

Just imagine: an online space in which much of our publicly-held cultural and heritage media assets and data can not only be found, but also connected together, searchable, machine-readable, open, accessible, visible and usable in a way that allows anyone – individuals, institutions and machines alike – to build new stories, add new material or context to or connect to other media, indexed and tagged to the highest level of detail. You can start to see in the image below that there’s been a little bit of thought put into how the public can access digital cultural content more easily.

The Digital Public Space initiative has been spearheaded by Tony Ageh, BBC Archives Controller and the man credited with the creation of the BBC’s iPlayer, the model for ABC’s iview. Like Berners-Lee’s Semantic Web, this is a hugely ambitious and is no less than about remaking the Internet. The work put into redefining access to our public culture today may be hard, but the public benefits are, to paraphrase Berners-Lee, limited only by our imagination.

We need to move beyond thinking about open access as destroying value, through lost licensing opportunities, and start thinking about how new open access models will create new value.

It may not be for everyone, this desire to not only read about the people and events of the past, to also have the sense of experiencing and engaging with them directly online, through original documentary recordings – with history as it has unfolded.

But we should have no doubts that our children will expect to have their history and their public culture at their digital fingertips.

Not taking steps to be more visible, sharable, re-editable and indexable by tomorrow’s digital natives surely risks diminishing the value of our cultural institutions for future generations?

Image credit: Rory Fink: Reflections in a Distorted Landscape. From the RetroFlective exhibition.