Open Government Data: possibilities and problems

View a .PDF version of this report here

“Government 2.0 involves direct citizen engagement in conversations about government services and public policy through open access to public sector information and new Internet based technologies. It also encapsulates a way of working that is underpinned by collaboration, openness and engagement”[1]

Back ground and context

The Political Issues Analysis System (PIAS) project (view original report .pdf)—in which this work is a sub-set—sought to investigate how citizens in Melbourne, Australia used the Internet to seek political information about key political issues. It also sought to understand how citizens contacted and interacted with their elected representative in relation to these issues. Through workshops, case studies, and the development and testing of prototype software, the research uncovered some notable trends in terms of user engagement with important aspects of the formal political process online.

The PIAS project principally focussed upon citizen information use through investigating interaction with party web-sites and the policy documents that they made available. However, the participants in our study largely found 1), the sites difficult to use 2), the information hard to navigate and compare with other policies and 3), the written policies unreliable and unclear. One of our key recommendations from the study emphasized that polices published by political parties should be made available in a ‘machine readable’ form so that they can be automatically aggregated into other systems to enable citizens to compare the policy positions of the parties. Also, strict metadata publishing standards and frameworks should be used so that the information aggregated is of a high-standard allowing it be re-utilised effectively.

This work compliments the PIAS project through listing some of the key projects and services that available that utilise government data. It also explores in more detail the limited availability of what could be termed ‘democratic data’. For the purposes here, “democratic data” is described as: 1) Hansard: making the working of government available in new ways, 2) Transparency: newer forms of transparency through ‘data’, and 3) Policy: enhance and extend the policy making process through online open consultation.

Why Open Access to government data?

Much of the impetus behind the drive for Open Access to government data stems from a push for greater transparency to the functions of government. However, in the case of Victoria, for instance, much of the data being released within the Gov 2.0 agenda tends to be of an administrative nature and of little democratic potential. Whist the Parliament of Victoria does make an enormous amount of useful material available to the public through its website; it is not made available in a technically sophisticated, machine readable way, to take full advantage of the potential of the Internet. Bills are only available in .pdf or word format and the most important document about the workings of government, Hansard, is also only available as .pdf (although it is possible to do a full-text search of Hansard from 1991 onwards). If these important documents were available in a machine readable form, they could be utilised by application developers in innovative ways.

The Open Access movement is a push to make data both machine readable and interoperable so that it may be linked together and leveraged for all sorts of purposes. This may be for new business opportunities, medical research, or new areas of social research. However, doing this is no easy task as multiple data sources require linking and matching across diverse and complex systems (and ‘cleansing’). The first step in this process is to expose data in a standardised way so that it may be located and machine-read. The Victorian public sector has a policy framework specifically designed to achieve these tasks titled the Victorian Public Sector Action Plan. Two key points are:

  1. Participation: Engaging communities and citizen through using Government 2.0 initiatives to put citizens at the centre and provide opportunities for co-design, co-production and co-delivery.
  2. Transparency: Opening up government through making government more open and transparent through the release of public sector data and information[2]

Making data available in this way can only help to “deepen democratic processes” and promote a strong and healthy democracy (however this is often an aspiration rather than an actuality).[3] Accordingly, there is a promising international trend to promote a two-way dialogue between political representatives and the public through combining ‘’democratic data’’ with citizen produced data through popular social media platforms.[4] Rather than building a completely new platform (as has been the case with a number of somewhat underutilised government initiatives), some projects take advantage of largely existing and heavily used social network platforms and provide tools and services to augment their existing capacity (usually to inform and communicate government policy processes) The large EU funded WeGov project[5] and other projects in the US and Europe are welcome movements in this direction. [6]

Continue reading “Open Government Data: possibilities and problems”

Framing the NBN: Consumer Attitudes and Perceptions

The report I co-authored for the Institute for Broadband Enabled Society (IBES) at the University of Melbourne is now available. “The Australian Government is building a National Broadband Network (NBN) to connect all Australians to high-speed broadband. The network has been promoted by Government and industry commentators as being increasingly important for participation in the digital economy. Yet the reported rates of uptake have been relatively low in some areas of the rollout. Research suggests that in many cases low NBN uptake is not simply a matter of people waiting for their existing Internet contract to expire or for their landlords to sign connection agreement, but relates to uncertainty of the NBN itself. This uncertainty arises from the confusing installation logistics, a fluid retail and technology environment for Internet services and a failure to communicate a clear ‘value proposition’ to the market.

726This research project builds upon previous studies into household media and communications use. These include: Broadband in the home: a longitudinal study that was previously supported by IBES and the High- speed broadband and household media ecologies project, funded by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN). These studies have focused on the expectations, uses and impacts of high-speed broadband from a select group of early adopters.

In order to examine the uptake of high-speed broadband, the researchers are investigating and analysing the differences in consumer perceptions of high-speed broadband and its benefit. An important element is how people understand high-speed broadband in relation to daily activities and the challenges and opportunities that broadband-enabled technologies can deliver end-users. A critical element of consumer adoption rates is how the benefits of the National Broadband Network are framed, and how this framing mediates patterns of household Internet use and decision-making.

To develop a detailed understanding of the relationship between NBN uptakes – researchers are undertaking a range of analytical techniques, such as online surveys, frame analysis and interviews with people. The data obtained will provide a valuable tool for exploring the cultural, marketing and media representations driving attitude formation across consumer segments in relation to the NBN adoption” (link to the report here)

Digital registers and estate planning

The internet and other digital technologies are an important part of everyday life. We are, increasingly, using them to upload and download files, communicate with family and friends, store and share documents, listen to music, read books, watch videos and so forth.

These files accumulate throughout life and become an important record of that life (link to article in LexisNexis Retirement and Estate Planning) (it’s on page 63).

Why Big Data Is Not Truth

“The word “data” connotes fixed numbers inside hard grids of information, and as a result, it is easily mistaken for fact. But including bad product introductions and wars, we have many examples of bad data causing big mistakes (link to article)”