Will open data lead to open government?

The Conversation

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

"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.

Sarah Barns receives funding from the Urban Studies Foundation. This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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