Friday, March 20, 2009

The power of raw government data

In the US President Obama's newly appointed (and first) Federal Government CIO Vivek Kundra has committed to finding new ways to make government data open and accessible.

The Computer World article, First federal CIO wants to 'democratize' U.S. government data, discusses how,
In a conference call with reporters, Kundra said he plans to create a Web site called that would "democratize" the federal government's vast information resources, making them accessible in open formats and in feeds for developers.

He also said he hopes to use emerging technologies like cloud computing to cut the need for expensive contractors who often end up "on the payroll indefinitely."
These are not idle words from a political appointee - Kundra, who I have mentioned previously, is well-known amongst egovernment practitioners around the world for his innovative work in pushing the boundaries of egovernment as the District of Columbia's CTO.

Politicians often have reservations about releasing raw data, despite being collected using public funds, due to perceived concerns that the data might be used to politically damage their reputations.

Similarly government departments often restrict the release of raw data due to concerns over how it may be reused or misused.

In Australia we even go to the extent of copyrighting government data. In the US most data, publications and other tools created by their Federal government are copyright free.

However with the US's moves the debate will soon shift to the disadvantages of not allowing free access to most raw government data.

As history has recorded, countries that remove barriers to the free flow of ideas and information develop faster, are economically more successful and their people enjoy higher standards of living.

Fostering innovation directly leads to national success.

So in a world where some countries make data freely available, how do other nations continue to compete?

To draw an analogy from the publishing world, Wikipedia disrupted the business model for Encyclopedia Britannica. By providing free 'crowd-sourced' information of greater depth and about the same accuracy as a highly expensive product, Britannica has been struggling to survive for years.

After trialing a number of different protective business models to sustain its existence, but protect its data, Encyclopedia Britannica has finally adopted one that might work - it has opened its articles up to 'crowd-sourcing', accepting suggestions which are then reviewed and acted on by its professional editors - a step towards openness. Visit the Britannica blog to learn how to suggest changes to the encyclopedia.

In other words, you cannot beat openness with secrecy - the only way to remain successful is to step towards openness yourself.

This really isn't news. Many have talked about the need for greater openness of government data before. I've even mentioned it myself once or twice.

To finish, I thought I'd flag this recent talk given by Tim Berners-Lee (the father of the world wide web) at TED on the need for open data. It has some points worth reflecting on.


  1. I am a big fan of this concept: 'As history has recorded, countries that remove barriers to the free flow of ideas and information develop faster, are economically more successful and their people enjoy higher standards of living'. Australia tends to wait in the wings before acting in technology innovation, but I wonder to what extent this is a result of a culture which avoids risk and keeps its cards close to its chest?

  2. Australia hasn't done too badly to-date.

    We have free press, processes for freedom of information, currently unfettered access to the internet, very limited censorship of films and books and it is very easy for Australians to travel internationally.

    We have a great base to build on and hopefully we won't wait for too long in the wings you mention Michael.

    However the fortunes of nations can rise and ebb and it is quite possible for democracies to falter - both the UK and US have at times and other nations have seen severe disruptions in previous technology cycles.