Friday, January 22, 2010

Access to public sector information

One of the topics in the Australian Gvernment's agenda on the Digital Economy has been about providing access to public sector information.

My understanding is that this issue was a particular interest of former advisor Tim Watts, who had been a great follower of Tom Watson MP. Today Watson has blogged with pride about the launch of

I haven't spent the time looking at this in detail yet, but it certainly looks like an interesting site. One feature is the ability for users to make suggestions about data needs. Onecaught my eye suggesting "Give consumers the opportunity to quickly see the cost of crude oil and fuel cost. Data on oil companies profits per day or per annum. Highlight how much Tax goes to governments."

It is interesting in the context of the Australian Government's failed "FuelWatch" proposal and the endless exercises the ACCC goes through gathering data and reporting the price cycle. But nowhere do they make the underlying data available.

I find this of minor interest because I had a letter published in the AFR many years ago on petrol prices. In that letter I pointed out that the the price of a litre of petrol depended on both the variable cost of oil and the relatively fixed cost of refining and distribution. It would be nice to be able to access all the data the ACCC gathrs on oil and fuel prices to do some better analysis of this. Put that another way, why are we dependent upon the econometric study conducted by the ACCC with neither the data nor methodology being public, only the conclusions.

The Government's Gov 2.0 taskforce concluded that;

Information collected by or for the public sector — is a national resource which should be managed for public purposes. That means that we should reverse the current presumption that it is secret unless there are good reasons for release and presume instead that it should be freely available for anyone to use and transform unless there are compelling privacy, confidentially or security considerations. .

Unfortunately the report did not go as far as what is occurring in the UK. The focus was mostly on the copyright status and the self-reporting by agencies of making data information available.

As I've already noted privately to Government we still have some way to go. One of the portfolio agencies under Digital Economy, the ACMA, publishes information as *.pdf files that are locked from being able to cut and paste from. This includes documents that are made up of mostly numerical data!

Perhaps the officers in the Australian Government should watch out for the forthcoming item in Prospect magazine about which the magazine claims;

Prospect has uncovered the story behind Tim Berners-Lee's work deep inside British government, and his remarkable success at busting open a closed, data-hugging state. ... The story we uncovered will be on the cover of Prospect magazine’s next issue (out on Thursday 28th January). It is a tale of star power, serendipity, vision, persistence and an almost unprecedented convergence of all levels of government. It is the best sort of policy story: one where the policy works, the good guys win, and public interest is served.

Sounds almost better than the Millenuium novels (of which more on another day, perhaps).

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