Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Kudos to Queensland government for taking a fun approach to their Premiers Awards for Open Data

Some of you might be aware that at the red carpet event for GovHack 2014 in Brisbane, the Queensland government's Assistant Minister to the Premier on e-government, Ray Stevens, announced the Premiers Awards for Open Data.

The Awards are a competition to come up with the best use of the 1,400 datasets released by the queensland government as open data in their data.qld.gov.au open data catalogue.

The competition has $77,000 in prizes up for grabs, and is fully international, open to anyone, anywhere in the world, without a requirement for any team members to be based in Queensland.

The competition is open until 26 September - so get your entries in.

Now to the kudos - normally these types of government open data competitions are rather dull affairs, with little in the way of fun or exciting promotion.

In this case however, Queensland has gone a little further than other states or countries, making a promotional video that takes a step away from the technical talk and has a little fun in the process while costing next to nothing.

It's the kind of approach we need to see more of from government - a little rough, a little fun and very sincere. View it below, then don't forget to enter!

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Monday, September 01, 2014

92% of Australia's federal politicians now use Facebook and/or Twitter

I've been tracking the number of Australian Federal politicians using Australia's leading social channels for two years now, seeing the number using at least one of Facebook and Twitter grow from 79% in April 2012 to 90% in November 2013 to a current level of 92%.

What's even more interesting is in the details, which you'll find in my thoughts below.

 To access the raw data and statistics, go to my latest Google Doc at: docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Ap1exl80wB8OdFhaQ1gzdzg3d1VWcFJpSl91bkQwbWc&usp=sharing

While the overall use of social media is at 92.48%, or 209 out of 226 federal politicians (150 Members of the House of Representatives and 76 Senators), the situation is very different between the houses.

The House of Representatives has a far greater level of social media use at 95.33% compared to the Senate at 86.84%. The gap has remained consistent with my last review in November 2013, where it was 92.67% compared to 85.14%. Senators, on average, are slightly older than Representatives (51.55yrs versus 50.19yrs), which is likely a factor, as is the consideration that Senators don't campaign in the same way as Representatives due to the difference in how they are elected and who they represent (states/territories, not electorates).

I still believe that Senators are missing a trick here - due to their different responsibilities in most cases they represent much larger electorates and thus social media can be of value for listening to and engaging with people they can't as easily drive out to see face-to-face.

This rationale also carries over to Representatives with geographically large electorates, such as in the NT, WA, SA and Qld.

I am particularly glad to see that the Nationals, who focus on rural and regional seats and were previously the party whose elected politicians were least likely to engage online, has picked up their act in this area, and 19 of their 20 elected members now uses social media, a greater proportion that either Labor or Liberals (and I count Qld LNP Nationals as Nationals federally).

Social media remains very important for smaller parties to get their message out, with the Greens maintaining their 100% use of social media and every other minor party (KAP, PUP, DLP, Family First) and independent politician using social to some extent.

I see the same trends we've seen in previous years from politicians, and the population in general, still hold true.

Similar to my past reviews, female politicians are more likely to use social channels than male politicians, though by a smaller margin (4% rather than 7%) than previously.

Equally, the older a politician is, the less likely they are to engage on social media, with a clear divide by decade.

This reflects the same phenomenon as we see in the community - with politicians aged 60+ far less likely to use online channels for engagement, and those aged under 45 likely to use it as one of their primary ways to communicate and collect information.

This tends to suggest that the maturity of political decisionmaking regarding the internet is likely to continue to improve as older politicians retire and younger digital natives take their place.

For your reviewing pleasure, below is an infographic with some of the key statistics, please have a play with the interactive elements - they provide an interesting view of how actively different groups of politicians engage via Twitter and Facebook.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Young people in Australia are highly engaged in politics - but engagement has moved online. Have governments?

A few years ago I heard it said by political advisors that one hand-written letter to a Minister counts for more than 100 emails on the same topic.

The perception was that if someone sat down and wrote their thoughts in long-hand it showed more interest and commitment than if they typed and posted them online in a blog, social network or website.

I believe this has changed slightly, with emails now accorded almost equal status with postal mail (largely by treating them in the same manner as postal mail, which isn't always appropriate).

However the value placed on blog posts or social media commentary by both politicians and departments still remains far lower than the value that individuals using these channels place on their communication via these channels.

This discrepancy becomes particularly concerning when looking at the level of political activity amongst younger and older people in Australia.

Based on the 'traditional' forms of political engagement - joining political parties, participating in street protests, writing letters and otherwise using physical means to communicate political views - young people are generally considered unengaged, even disconnected, from politics.

This appeared to be supported by a recent study by the University of Canberra commissioned by the Museum of Australian Democracy. (reported on by the ABC and Hijacked)

This study found that, based on these traditional forms of engagement, young people were far less engaged than older people. In fact people aged under 35 were only about half as engaged as those over 70 years old, and were the least engaged of any age group.

Source: ABC Lateline

However, the study went much further, looking at modern forms of political engagement - blogging, tweeting, memes, apps and other digital techniques - as well.

When combining traditional and modern forms of engagement the situation was very, very different.

Suddenly young people were just as engaged as the oldest Australians and more engaged than many of the age groups inbetween.

On this basis, including both marching in the streets and creating online petitions, young people are quite engaged in politics in Australia, with a large amount of their engagement occurring online rather than offline.

This can be hard for older Australians to grasp - they often don't understand the internet as younger people do, having been brought up on newspapers, radio and television.

Not coincidentally, a disproportionate number of our politicians, top bureaucrats, corporate leadership and leading journalists fall into these older groups - therefore they are often not equipped to even see, let alone understand, the ways in which younger people are engaging politically.

This divide isn't necessarily a problem, but it could become one. When insisting that young people follow the same political approaches as their elders, older people are devaluing newer forms of political expression and underestimating its reach and force.

Where politicians, departmental Secretaries and CEOs gauge the public's mood by signals such as how many people show up to protest, they may overlook the new signals, when hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people organise and protest online, until it is too late for them to change course.

There have already been examples of how politicians, media and CEOs have misread the public mood as they still rely on traditional, rather than modern political signals.

Until our 'elders' begin to recognise that times have changed and continue to change, they will continue to be blindsided as innovation continues in political protests.

For example, there was the creation of the Stop Tony Meow plug-in for Chrome, which replaces images of Tony Abbott in the web browser with pictures of kittens. The plug-in has been downloaded over 11,000 times and attracted significant media coverage as an anti-Coalition political statement.

There's also been the recent Dolebludger app available for Android mobile devices, which allows someone to send job application emails in a matter of seconds to 40 Coalition MPs, meeting the proposed monthly job application requirement. This was designed specifically as a political protest against a policy seen by the creator (and many public commentators) as absurd.

On top of this we have the endless string of memes created using free online tools which take photos of politicians and adds text to make a political point. These are then shared widely on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other platforms.

And, more disturbingly, we've recently seen hackers take down a stock exchange and call on the nation's president to take action on a given matter under threat of having confidential financial data released publicly. Where did this last form of political protest occur? In Syria - a country not known as a bastion of democracy.

Similarly striking into illegal behaviour, we've recently seen the use of a phony bomb threat tweet to disrupt the flight of a Sony Executive as part of a protest against Sony's corporate behaviour.

Online political expression is evolving quickly, with new approaches emerging frequently and proliferating widely, if they work, or dying away when they don't.

The old view that people would get out on the street and protest if they were really unhappy is no longer supported by the evidence - and the notion that online activism is simply 'slacktivism' and doesn't represent significant numbers or strong views is equally no longer supportable.

Governments - both politically and administratively - need to build their understanding of modern approaches to political engagement and learn how to use and defuse them (as appropriate) to serve their own ends.

Otherwise there are real and growing risks that a government or public agency will be severely damaged or brought down through online political avenues - channels that they weren't effectively monitoring, didn't hold in high regard and catastrophically undervalued.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Algorithm detected Ebola outbreak nine days before health authorities using internet posts

There's a great article over at TechRepublic by Lyndsey Gilpin on how the computer algorithm behind HealthMap detected the recent Ebola outbreak nine days before it was identified by health authorities.

In How an algorithm detected the Ebola outbreak a week early, and what it could do next, Gilpin describes how by tracking, collating and corroborating information published in online news sources and social media, the algorithm was able to identify the 'mystery hemorrhagic fever' over a week before official health agencies.

However the significance of the outbreak was not realised by HealthMap founders until after health authorities got involved.

This type of use of internet 'chatter' and algorithms to make sense of the world offers enormous potential for organisations to better identify and understand underlying trends.

For government this means the ability to identify outbreaks of human, animal and crop diseases earlier, detect early indications of potential crises and trends in population views and behaviours.

In all these cases it gives government the opportunity - using only public sources of information - to react sooner and more appropriately, containing problems and getting ahead of issues.

Equally this capability can be used by commercial entities for marketing and product development, by financial organisations for faster and better informed investment decisions and by activists, lobbyists, foreign interests and terrorists to identify weak points for destabilising a nation or gaining advantage.

It remains early days in this area - not as early as when Google first released its flu map for Australia back in 2009 - but early enough that few organisations are, as yet, investing in this area (giving them a huge advantage over rivals).

However with HealthMap's algorithms now successful at screening out over 90% of unrelated information, the value of using this type of approach in policy and service delivery has now reached the point of commercial viability, which should only accelerate investment and research into the area in coming years.

If Australian governments aren't yet mining the public internet for intelligence to help improve decision-making, hopefully it won't be long until they do - at least to contend against others who might use this intelligence for less than positive purposes.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Government agencies need to think open first with all content - example of the Clean Energy Regulator

Last week the Clean Energy Regulator released a calendar that illustrates when other government agencies use National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting data.

Called the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting publication calendar, this is useful data for locating government reports on energy and climate change. It also serves a secondary role in highlighting the importance of the information collected and released by the regulator.

Now a calendar, by its nature, is simply a table of data - so it would make sense to release this calendar as data. Indeed as it is a public document, with no security or private constraints, it is a perfect candidate to be released as open data.

This would allow the calendar to be mashed up with other data on the topic to present, perhaps, a comprehensive calendar of climate change and energy research in Australia.

Indeed it would likely be simpler to release this calendar as data than as a formatted document, which would require additional formatting and conversion steps. This could also meet all government accessibility requirements, as well as making the data easily reusable by others.

So what did the Clean Energy Regulator do?

They released the calendar only as a DOC and a PDF.

*deep sigh*

It's clear to me that there's still a major disconnect in government regarding when and how to release data in an open way.

This is likely an education gap, but also a KPI gap. If public servants were required in their KPIs to ensure that relevant public content they were responsible for was published in an open and machine-readable fashion we might see some change.

Essentially agencies need to embed 'open thinking' at the start of their reporting and research processes, working from the basis that all data that is being released publicly - including content such as calendars, lists, financial accounts and more - should be available in a reusable open format.

In this case I've 'liberated' the data for the Clean Energy Regulator and let data.gov.au know, as I did recently for ACT Crime Statistics data.

In this case I've even improved the data by turning the month field into a working date, fixing the errors (where closing brackets were dropped), separating out web addresses as a new field and separating Department/Agency name from the note that follows it, thereby allowing Department/Agency to be analysed and grouped. (view it at https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1xlnfd0H9t4O1JzdNqhjfeUCw7Oxk1XN7DYM_WbAHZ-c/edit?usp=sharing)

I've also done some analysis on the number of reports by agency and month (as below).

This is the type of work that individuals like me should not be doing.

It's what agencies and individual public servants need to take responsibility for - particularly when opening up the data is actually simpler than locking it down into a less open form.

The National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting publication calendar is now (unofficially) available as a Google spreadsheet for reuse. The Clean Energy Regulator is welcome to take a copy and use it for their publishing updates.

You'll find it at:

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