Towards a more open NZ

Written by Aimee Whitcroft, Co-Founder of GovWorks NZ

The tech industry — including open source — have a strong role to play in contributing to a stronger, kinder, more resilient NZ.

I’m going to cover open data, open government, open source — but only briefly, as you’re already experts! — and how it all ties together into something called “civic tech”.

And how all of these could and can have an immeasurably positive impact on our communities, our whanau, and as a result, ourselves.

Open say what now?

I reckon that strong, shared definitions of any term are amazingly useful when talking about it.

So first up, it’s probably useful to make sure we’re all on the same page with what I mean when I talk about open data.

For the purposes of this talk, we can define open data as any data that’s publicly available, and on an ongoing basis.

And “publicly-available” doesn’t mean for a short period of time only. It doesn’t mean for a select group of people. Or with barriers to entry like being charged to access it.

It means, quite literally, publicly available. To anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Of course, this definition also includes shoddily-made PDFs of council minutes, for example, so the data may be publicly available, but that doesn’t mean it’s hugely accessible, or even terribly useful for many use-cases (not without an amount of resource which acts in itself as a barrier to entry).

And it’s not necessarily live data. To put it another way — it’s static, and while it’s still useful to look for past trends and patterns, it’s not useful for any real-time application. It also, very easily, becomes out of date. And one doesn’t necessarily know when that happens.

One way to counter this, of course, is to make it machine readable. This can be done by the organisation who’s releasing the data, or by members of the public or other organisations. To use our earlier example of Council minutes, someone might take those shoddy (and often rather buried) PDFs and turn attendance records trapped in them into a spreadsheet, for easier analysis.

An even better thing to do would be to also release the data in the form of an API. An open API — that is, one that’s publicly available. With a bit of luck, there’d also be some accompanying documentation about how to use the API, making it nicely accessible, too.

This allows people to analyse and pipe the information into just about any form they choose, from maps to apps. Not only is the data the most up-to-date available, but, as we know, it can be used to make realtime, living resources.

I know the devs I, er, know far prefer an API to being handed an Excel spreadsheet (which may or may not have become corrupted along the line, too).

I hear a lot of puzzlement from people about why on earth one should giveaway data. After all, data leads to information, which leads to knowledge.

And knowledge is power, right?

Open data has huge social value

I’ll answer that question from a lens focussing on open data’s social value. If you’re interested in its commercial value, feel free to contact me afterwards! Because there’s definite commercial value to it, too 🙂

There’s a strong case to be made that data that’s generated by publicly-funded institutions — eg government — should be available to the public who paid for it. Of course, I’m not talking about all data, and certainly not in raw form. We must be very careful around privacy, and not victimising or revictimising people.

But there’s plenty of data that can and should be shared. And a tonne of organisations, and research, backing up that open government data is a powerful thing.

It enables ordinary citizens to understand better what’s going on in their societies, and make more informed choices about the decisions they, and their elected officials, make.

It enables people to push for change — or the status quo — based on evidence, not anecdote, opinion or emotion. Although we know that emotion is hugely important in making decisions.

It builds higher levels of digital literacy — since people need to understand the basics (or know people who do) in order to use the data, they have a stronger incentive to learn about it.

It builds more transparent government and power structures, enabling people to hold their governments to account (sometimes to the horror of said governments, which is great).

And it gets people engaged. Fewer black boxes into which data disappears, never to reappear, means a less cynical and disengaged society. And the more people are engaged in our society, the better. After all, we live in a democracy!

And we get to interrogate our gods.

Talking of which, open government…

Let’s segue into open government, then. I’m not suggesting they’re our gods, but they do have a powerful effect on our lives!

Across the world, more and more governments are turning to the principles of open government as they look for how to stay relevant, do more with less, and be more responsive.

Open govt, as the quotation says, means that people living in a country have the right to access information about what the government is doing — often in the form of open data. Of course, exactly what people can access, and how, differs hugely between countries, but the principles of open government — transparency and accountability, participation and engagement — remain the same.

It’s simple: open governments make for better democracies.

It enables the public to better oversee their government’s activities.

It empowers the people in that country to be more informed, and potentially more engaged.

And it helps push governments to be more accountable, effective and responsive.

One of the major international open government initiatives is the Open Government Partnership, or OGP.

It was founded in 2011, to “provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.” (OGP)

As you see, the OGP people over here have some noble aims:

“New Zealand’s action plan provides opportunities for us to do even better in the areas of:

  • improving public service delivery
  • increasing the transparency and accountability of government
  • encouraging greater public engagement
  • fostering new ways for citizens and governments to work together to solve common problems.”

With 7 commitments:

  • open budget
  • improving official information practices
  • improving open data access and principles
  • tracking progress and outcomes of open government data release
  • ongoing engagement with the OGP
  • improving access to legislation
  • improving policy practices.

We’re watching closely to see how the involved agencies do — so can you.

This article was originally published here and was reposted with permission.

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