Sunday, August 09, 2009
  Unravelling bureaucracy's tangled web
From NZ Herald Wednesday Jul 29, 2009

Ever wondered what happens to all that information the Government collects? Think you can make better use of it than the bureaucrats? Need some facts to give your mash-up some muscle?

A new initiative by a group of digital activists aims to identify sources of public information, classify who "owns" it, what licence it is distributed under and if it is free or not. Open government ninja Glen Barnes says the Open Data Catalogue is from's practical manifesto.

"We have paid for that information, and I believe we have a right to it," says Barnes, whose day job involves turning property information into useful applications.

Some information must be kept behind departmental walls to protect individuals' privacy but there is a lot more which can quite safely be let loose.

To make it easier for local bodies and central agencies to let their data out, Barnes is working on an API (application programming interface) for data which is not available in easily digestible formats like Excel or CSV (comma separated values), such as information from websites written in HTML.

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He'll take it along for discussion next month at the first open government data bar camp, a user-generated conference to be held at the National Library in Wellington on the weekend of August 29.

"I'm also taking down some work I'm doing on real-time transport information - some of the councils are interested in the concept of how things can happen from that.

"Local bodies often do not have the resources to build websites, but they might make data available for private enterprise to do it."

A typical example is mashing up Google Maps and crime statistics, giving people a visual impression of risk in their town.

Open data scares some agencies and politicians, as evidenced by Education Minister Anne Tolley's contortions when questioned about the league tables her national testing programme will inevitably generate.

It also raises questions about the way government agencies have treated data in the past.

Think of the Companies Office site, which is an excellent and free source of information, but was first designed with the aim of charging fees to offset its development and running costs. It's burdened with some clunky APIs - so for example it's not possible to search which files have been recently updated.

Laurence Millar spent the past five years as government chief information officer trying to streamline the Government's information systems and get better outcomes from its $1.9 billion IT spend.

In his last blog posting as a public servant, Millar wrote of a need to recognise the network effects of opening up government data in a form that means others can access it.
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An online possie for Adam Gifford, a New Zealand journalist specialising in information technology, Maori news and the arts.

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