In praise of open New Zealand

This is an old post but I’m leaving it here for the hell of it. Failed links have been updated (where possible) or removed.

I’m heartened by some ‘open’ developments in New Zealand.

Firstly, kudos to Nat Torkington and Glen Barnes for setting up http://opengovt.org.nz, a website that promises to catalogue any government data that’s publicly available for download and further use. This is cool. It can become a useful port of call for anyone looking for data to use on a specific project.

There’s quite a lot of publicly available information emanating from the public sector, which is great. I love the images the National Library has made available under a Creative Commons licence on Flickr and I’ve been a regular user this year of Papers Past, which contains countless digitised pages from early New Zealand newspapers.

In recent weeks I’ve been trawling the LINZ website, Companies Office, Parliament.govt.nz and many more as I work on a Wintec project to put our National Diploma of Journalism online and make it available as a part-time course of study (a big job, as it turns out, but rewarding to work on and we are on track to open the doors next February).

But public information can be hard to find unless you’ve got a lot of time on your hands or happen to be familiar with all the ministries and their various responsibilities and websites. When you do find it, it’s sometimes ‘eyes only’ –  you can visit the website and read the stuff or maybe download it as a pdf, but there appears to be no practical way to download it in a format that allows you to re-use it or its constituent parts.

The Open Data Catalogue aims to be a centralised list of available data which links to the website that holds it and tells you whether it costs to download, how it can be downloaded (csv, xls, geo, api or other) and what licence applies. Brilliant.

Secondly, kudos to the people inside government who toil away making this data open and available. It can’t be easy making the case for it in the first place given that people have a tendency to want to keep data locked down.

That said, as Jason Ryan notes in a recent NSPC blog post, although there are more than 40 datasets on the Open Data site from central and local government agencies:

The point to bear in mind as you scroll down this list, though, is that these sets represent a fraction of the data the Crown holds. This catalogue could easily extend to hundreds of pages…

So, while we celebrate the initiative of the Ministry for the Environment releasing data under a Creative Commons license, for example, it might be worth pausing and considering how we can accelerate this process.

Later he says:

The critical issue in opening up government data [is]: culture change.

It’s not about the technology. It’s not about data quality. Or privacy. Or commercial sensitivity, or any of that stuff. That should all be dealt to as part of the everyday functioning of any administration. It is about accepting that we, the government, collect and manage this information on behalf of citizens and that it is our fundamental responsibility to make it available to them in a way that supports the creation of public and economic value.

This isn’t an add-on, or a ‘nice to do.’ It’s an integral part of our operating environment now.

I agree completely.

Jason also pointed to an Open Govt Data Bar Camp being planned, possibly next month in Wellington. A Bar Camp is an unconference – a conference where the agenda is set by participants themselves and where ideas can often be put into action on the spot – and represents a good opportunity for people in a position to help open up data to do so collegially.

The ability to get information first-hand, or at least nearer to it, holds considerable appeal for me. I increasingly find myself looking for the source of news stories so I can make up my own mind of their value. By sources I mean the report, speech, press conference, statistics etc that the story was based on or sparked by. I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in this.

So all power to the people who are making that possible. Long may it continue, and thanks.