Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Setting Government Information Free

Today on Radio New Zealand Natonal after the 11am news I talked about the why and the how of setting government information free so that we can all benefit. There’s been a lot of work done on this in many countries, including New Zealand, and some useful things are starting to happen. In a few weeks time a bunch of folk in New Zealand are giving up their weekend to attend the first ever New Zealand Open Government Data Barcamp and Hackfest.

You can read on for my speaking notes, or download the audio as ogg or mp3.

Information wants to be free! Does it? That’s been a catch cry of Internet technologists for years. What they really mean is that, before the Internet, it cost time and money to copy information. Printing books, copying manuscripts and so forth – they all take time and resources. Computers and the Internet can just make copies of information instantly – that’s pretty much what they do. That’s why they are so successful, so useful to us. As a species we want information and these machines just make it possible.

Stewart Brand once said: On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Q: So are you saying to do away with copyright?

A: No, I’m not saying that at all. But copyright has evolved in an era where breaking it was expensive; that’s no longer the case. My point is that information historically had a cost to copy. It doesn’t any more, copying is trivially easy. Most computer systems copy information just to move it around. It’s harder to prevent copying than it is to copy. That’s what people mean by “information wants to be free”.

To some extent, current interpretations of what copyright means are driven by what technology makes possible. That’s why we are seeing the tension between so-called Internet pirates and companies that want to assert control over copyrighted materials.

But what I really want to talk about today is government information being recycled on the Internet.

Q: What sort of government information?

A: The government has a huge amount of information about people, about the economy, about the land.

Q: What about privacy?

A: No-one is suggesting that we make the privacy regime weaker. It’s even more important today that privacy is protected, because computers and the Internet make copying and publication so easy. But there’s a lot of information government can give out without getting into people’s privacy.

Q: It can be hard to get information out of government!

A: It’s actually easier here than in many countries. The Official Information Act makes a presumption that government information should be made available – in fact the Act’s preamble says that it should be made more and more available. And over the years we have seen government departments making efforts to publish material online without waiting for people to ask for it.

The Companies Office is a great example of this. There’s a lot you can find out about companies and directors on the Internet without paying a cent.

But there’s a lot more that could be done. The Companies Office is great at delivering information to a web browser, but what we are increasingly seeing on the web is people creating websites and web services that take data from different sources and mix it together.

Q: Such as?

A: Such as the way you get a little “Google Maps” link on many websites these days. That’s because Google makes it really, really easy for other websites to do. And there’s a New Zealand mapping service called Zoomin that does much the same thing for New Zealand addresses.

In the UK, the government has proposed opening more of its data and set up a competition to come up with interesting ways of reusing it. Five ideas that won the competition are:

• Can I Recycle It? : recycling information based on post code

• UK Cycling : planning cycling routes

• Catchment Areas : boundaries of school catchment areas

• Location of Postboxes : nearest one to wherever you are

• LooFinder : a mobile texting or website for the nearest public toilet

In the US, Carl Malamud who is a long-time open government data campaigner, set up a think tank of the great and the good in technology who came up with a set of principles:

1. Complete – All public data is made available. Public data is data that is not subject to valid privacy, security or privilege limitations.

2. Primary – Data is as collected at the source, with the highest possible level of granularity, not in aggregate or modified forms.

3. Timely – Data is made available as quickly as necessary to preserve the value of the data.

4. Accessible – Data is available to the widest range of users for the widest range of purposes.

5. Machine processable – Data is reasonably structured to allow automated processing.

6. Non-discriminatory – Data is available to anyone, with no requirement of registration.

7. Non-proprietary – Data is available in a format over which no entity has exclusive control.

8. License-free – Data is not subject to any copyright, patent, trademark or trade secret regulation. Reasonable privacy, security and privilege restrictions may be allowed.

Q: Does that happen in the US?

A: Not much, but at least these guys have enunciated a clear goal. In New Zealand, we’ve had a thing called the policy on government-held information since the 90s. Even the name is good – “government-held” – it recognizes the fact that government has collected information but it doesn’t own it as such – it’s our data and the government should let us have it. At the time that policy was pushed through government departments liked to charge people for information. That’s mostly changed now.

Possibly the biggest hindrance in New Zealand to reusing Government data is the Crown Copyright notice that it likes to stick on everything. That’s places some restrictions on reuse of information which prevent it from being recycled freely in websites. Its really good to see The Ministry of the Environment recently releasing data under a Creative Commons licence which allows reuse, and I hope that other government departments do the same.

Q: Is anyone taking notice of this in government?

A: I think so – inside and outside government. There’s a project under way in government to look at how free its data is. And in the private sector, a bunch of people who care about this are putting together an “unconference” to be held on the weekend of 29th August. People who want to participate in reusing government data are welcome to sign up – look at, in the links.


The “War on Free” – Google sued for giving away Google Maps

The EC Commissioner on Telecoms and Digital Media says piracy isn’t the problem – failing business models are the problem.

The Companies Office – a great source of information.

A blog post I wrote about opening government information, and one on SSC’s development blog.

The UK’s Show us a Better Way project.

Computerworld on recycling government data.

The Open Government Data Barcamp and Hackfest.

posted by colin at 7:10 am  

1 Comment

  1. It is annoying that Standards NZ and Aus are not free. Have we paid for them through our taxes? These are standards that we need to build to, appliances need to meet etc. etc., yet we don’t know what they are unless we pay for them. They are available in most main libraries but….


    Comment by Sandy — 6 August 2009 @ 12:12 pm

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