Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How public is public information?

Over in California a controversy over the level of public access to public information flared up where the The Bee newspaper in Sacremento published a searchable online database of public sector officials and their salaries.

The newspaper simply pulled publicly available information together into a single source - no information was assumed or obtained illegally.

This has led to storm of protest which the newspaper responded to in a From the Editor Special: Response to questions about state employee pay database.

Over time we're also likely to see more Australian public information also being matched in this way - the tools to do so are readily available today.

For instance, it would require minimal effort for a media outlet or individual to mash together and republish information from GOLD (Government On-Line Directory) with APS salary ranges drawn from agency careers pages - providing a fairly accurate picture of the salaries of senior public sector officials in Australia.

Pulling together names of public servants listed in Hansard reports, media releases, websites and from published event attendence lists or meeting minutes, could also be combined with White Pages details, salary figures and office locations to identify and locate many public workers. Add a Google search and you can discover sporting affiliations, past roles, comments made online and further information about individuals - particularly those with distinctive or unique names (such as myself).

Each of the pieces of information by itself doesn't breach privacy - so can matching them together create a breach?

If so, how do you prevent information matching - shut down the internet and close the public libraries?

I'll leave the last word to an article from Government Technology, Web 2.0 Challenges Notions of Public and Private Information;
...everything we know about records management is wrong. Sure, that's hyperbole, but Barton [Founder of Glassdoor, now publishing salary information on the web] isn't exaggerating when he claims, "People's appetite for this information ... is effectively infinite." Once again, the Internet will show us what happens when public records are actually public.


  1. Iteresting discussion, thanks for posting.

  2. The Sydney Herald fun run has 70 000 competitors. In the past, results have been published in the newspaper by their finishing time. This year they were published alphabetically. Suddenly, I can find my friends. Making the information available in a way that people can easily use it makes a significant difference.

  3. Hi Wendy,

    That's a good start!

    Next they need to allow you to plot your friends' (and your own) performance on a chart of finishers by time, compared by age, gender and weight group to see how well they really did :)

    Then the SMH needs to allow people to insert a 'performance' widget in their Facebook or Myspace to illustrate their achievement and compare it with their own friends....

    There's a lot of ways the data could be further mashed to add additional usefulness.