Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Guest post: Moving things forward – addressing the information gaps

This is a guest post written by Rosie Williams, a leading Australian Open Data Developer and Citizen Journalist, who created and manages infoAus.net and writes for NoFibs.com.au. It's republished from OpenAus with her permission.

The Power to Persuade blog fosters new ways to collaborate across sectors for better social policy. Power to Persuade recently published a post of mine on open data in which I argued for the role of transparency in addressing social policy questions.
I recounted a recent attempt to discover the number of homeless shelters across Australia, only to be met with a quote for over $1,000 in consideration of it not being previously published and due to difficulties in extracting the information from the system. The most interesting thing bar the cost of the service is that the reason I was forced to seek this data directly from the AIHW in the first place was exactly because I had not found it in any of the reports published by government or community sector.
As a financial and political transparency activist I have been looking into how decisions regarding the funding of housing/homeless services flow through the policy process in order to understand why such a substantial unmet need for specialist homeless services is tolerated. Australian Institute of Health & Welfare figures show that nearly 60% of people making a request for accommodation on any given day are turned away. I want to understand what process leads to this outcome.
I have also heard privately from service providers, the very organisations required to report their own data to government that they do not have access to key metrics.
Open data is a fairly new concept for Australia.Open data is data that is made available free for re-use for commercial or non-commercial purposes. The government is yet to fulfil it’s obligations to the Open Government Partnership although there are rumours this is finally about to change. The OGP requires the Australian government to submit a National Action Plan detailing extensive consultation in the areas of fiscal transparency, access to information, income and asset disclosure, and citizen engagement, all areas which affect our power to make society answerable to our needs and the needs of the vulnerable.
The government has been opening data for the last few years but there are few instances of that data being re-used. My own projects in financial and political transparency are an exception. The Commonwealth government is now implementing new grants reporting requirements to provide consistency in reporting grant recipients and locations for every relevant agency. This data set is not yet complete or available in one spot but what is available is searchable at OpenAus.
It is only when data is put to use for a specific purpose that it becomes obvious where data sets are missing or data quality needs work. One of the biggest challenges to open data is where the need for data crosses jurisdictional boundaries as it does with many questions of social policy. Issues such as domestic violence or homelessness require data not just from federal services but also state agencies. With every state potentially doing it’s own thing with regard to data collection and publication, trying to find or use data covering multiple agencies or jurisdictions is a major hurdle in any attempt to make use of open data in Australia for improved transparency, policy or practice.
To address these issues, there needs to be engagement between jurisdictions and also between sectors. Government agencies responsible for gathering and publishing data need to engage with both end users of that data and contributors to that data in order to improve quality and foster awareness of the existence and uses for that data.
To provide a pathway forward I have set up a Slack community open to practitioners in social and data science, researchers and government. The goals of this community are as follows:
Community Goals
  • provide venue to engage end users of data, organisations contributing data to government and data custodians to better address social issues
  • lobby for improved data and transparency
  • provide answers on specific data questions eg where can I find information on x?
  • run events /produce materials in support of these goals
Community Participants
This community is for practitioners, researchers, policy makers and anyone who can provide assistance to these groups in terms of answering questions about where data can be found and what can be done with it.
My various networks cross the boundaries of journalism, technology, data science and politics. Providing a bridge between these groups paves the way for people with diverse skills and information to come together to help professional communities realise their aims. If you would like access to this community please email me from your work account for an invitation.
Slack is a platform that allows for chat between teams and private messaging and integrates with a host of other services. It is easy to join and use, taking the place of both email and forums for purposes of discussion and planning.
How to Participate
Email Rosie at admin @ openaus.net.au from your work email to enable me to send you the invitation.

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