Monday, November 30, 2015

Register now for an OGP Australia information session

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have just announced a series of information sessions regarding the Open Government Partnership and the process by which the Australian government is seeking to involve the community and civil organisations in the development of our first National Action Plan by the end of June 2016.

For information on these sessions, which will occur in the week of 14-18 December in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, visit the OGP Australia blog at: ogpau.govspace.gov.au/register-to-attend-an-ogp-australia-information-session/

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Using open data for insights into Australian-registered charities

Rosie Williams of OpenAus recently released her latest open data project, Open Charities, to provide insight into the financials of Australian charities.

The service integrates the available open data from 53,000 registered Australian charities in a way never done before, allowing fast and simple analysis of charities by location, electorate and issue.

To fund this work on an ongoing basis Rosie has also introduced a subscriber-only feature at $50 per year which provides access to information on all of the government grants and tenders won by each charity - connecting together several different open datasets.

This information is useful not only for people considering donating to different Australian charities, but also for charities seeking to research their sector and those thinking about creating new charities.

It's important to note that all of the value unlocked by Open Charities and similar open sites would not be available if not for the hard work by volunteers such as Rosie.

There's still too few of these volunteers, meaning that there's potentially immense value left untapped across the tens of thousands of open datasets now released by Australian Government.

This means there's still enormous opportunities to identify and realise value for startups and social enterprises seeking new ways to repurpose data into useful knowledge.

If you've ever had an interest in finding solutions to social and economic problems, why not take a look at Rosie's work and think about the value you could add.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Presentation on digital citizenship, user experience & the emerging role of libraries

The other week I was in Wellington, New Zealand for the international Linked up, Loud and Literate: Libraries enabling digital citizenship conference.

Below is my presentation from the day, including the story of a recent customer experience with an Australian government agency.

For other presentations from the day visit nsla.org.au/digital-citizenship-2015.


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Monday, November 23, 2015

Australian Government's decision to join the Open Government Partnership should help us come together to forge better outcomes

Last week the Australian Government announced that it was taking steps to join the global Open Government Partnership (OGP).

What's the OGP? it's a voluntary, multi-stakeholder international initiative supported by 69 national governments that was created out of the open government / Government 2.0 movement to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

This is a decision that has taken some time to make. While Australia was invited to join as a founding member of the OGP (with eight other nations) in August 2011, the then Labor government didn't make announce an intent to join until 2013.

After this, a change in government saw the decision revisited and ultimately put on hold, as the new Coalition government reduced the policy emphasis on government openness and transparency.

However, with the recent fresh wind blowing through government with a change in Prime Minister, openness and transparency has returned to the national Coalition policy agenda.

One outcome was the announcement of 17 November by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet that Australia was taking the necessary steps to become a full member of the OGP.

More information on this decision and what it involves in practice, both for government and for civil society, is available on the new ogpau.govspace.gov.au website.

While overall there's been positive feedback from the 'insider' community that have been interested in this decision, there's also been some criticism of the process as it has been laid out.

Given this is the first time the Australian government has developed an OGP plan, I'm not that concerned about the process being perfect.The fact that it has started is the crucial point.

I expect the process will improve into future planning cycles as all participants - government, civil societies and the community - gain an appreciation of the most effective ways to work together in this type of endeavour.

We can learn from the experience of other countries, which is well summed up in this OGP report, however the Australian experience will be unique and hopefully all participants will approach this current process with good faith and a willingness to 'learn on the job'.

The most important outcome of this first OGP process isn't the first National Action Plan for Australia, it's the relationships and understandings forged between government and non-government open government players that will positively contribute to an evolving relationship.

While backbiting and criticising may get a good media run, it seldom builds strong workable relationships, if not framed within a context of identifying and implementing improvements.

OGP membership is an opportunity to build the transparency culture in Australia, bridge gaps and build a strong civil community. Let's maximise its value both for citizens and government.

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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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Monday, November 09, 2015

Can an AI understand your online personality? How about your agency's online persona?

I've been having a play with IBM Watson's Personality Insights Service.

The service uses "linguistic analytics to extract a spectrum of cognitive and social characteristics from the text data that a person generates through blogs, tweets, forum posts, and more."

While this is quite a mouthful, the service provides an interesting external perspective on how individuals and organisations present themselves online.

As a benchmark, this is how Watson sees me from my last dozen blog posts in eGovAU (excluding the guest posts):
You are shrewd, skeptical and tranquil. 
You are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. You are empathetic: you feel what others feel and are compassionate towards them. And you are imaginative: you have a wild imagination. 
Experiences that give a sense of prestige hold some appeal to you. You are relatively unconcerned with tradition: you care more about making your own path than following what others have done. You consider achieving success to guide a large part of what you do: you seek out opportunities to improve yourself and demonstrate that you are a capable person.



In a nutshell that's not too bad an analysis.

However what happens when we analyse a government agency's social media presence?

In this case I decided to analyse the Digital Transition Office (DTO), by taking all their blog posts from July to November (excluding guest posts) and plugging them into the Watson Personality analyser.

So this is how Watson sees the personality of the DTO:

You are heartfelt and rational.  
You are self-controlled: you have control over your desires, which are not particularly intense. You are empathetic: you feel what others feel and are compassionate towards them. And you are proud: you hold yourself in high regard, satisfied with who you are.  
Experiences that make you feel high efficiency are generally unappealing to you. You are relatively unconcerned with tradition: you care more about making your own path than following what others have done. You consider helping others to guide a large part of what you do: you think it is important to take care of the people around you.


Now that's a pretty good result for an organisation (except maybe the pride bit). 

It seems to me that the personality that the DTO is projecting through their blog is fairly close to the approach and persona that the DTO wishes to portray within government and more broadly in the community.

Now how about another agency...

Here's a review of the Department of Immigration's Migration blog, taking all blog posts from October 2014 onwards (to provide a sample of the same size as the DTO and my blog).

Here's what Watson said about the Department of Immigration's blog's personality:

You are heartfelt, tranquil and skeptical. 
You are calm under pressure: you handle unexpected events calmly and effectively. You are self-assured: you tend to feel calm and self-assured. And you are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. 
Experiences that make you feel high well-being are generally unappealing to you. 
You are relatively unconcerned with taking pleasure in life: you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment. You consider achieving success to guide a large part of what you do: you seek out opportunities to improve yourself and demonstrate that you are a capable person.

On the money, or off the mark?


Now of course this kind of process is flawed. An AI can only read the words it sees, it doesn't have a broader picture of an individual or organisation and it has been programmed to respond in given ways to given words or phrases.

However it does highlight an important point about communicating online, and in every medium, in the way you wish to be seen.

Does your online persona represent how you wish to be seen? Is it consistent across platforms? Is it appropriate to your organisation's goals?

It's worth using tools like this to check how your organisation is communicating and identify if there's attributes you are portraying which are contrary to how you wish to be seen.

If your online persona isn't aligned closely with your goals it can create issues in how people see you and how they engage with you - leading to greater negativity in interactions and diminishing trust and respect.

So think carefully about every post, tweet and status update - do they represent and reinforce your organisational values, or do they damage your image in the public eye.

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Guest Post: Three secrets to unlocking digital government. And you'll never guess what they are...

This is a guest post from Alun Probert, founder of GovComm and former Director of Communications at the NSW Government. It has been republished from LinkedIn with his permission:
Working in Government communications, it’s practically impossible nowadays to avoid discussions of all things “digital”. From the most extreme and simply distracting notion of “Disrupting Government” to the more sensible focus on the incremental improvement of all levels of service delivery, public sector teams worldwide are appropriately looking to the new world to streamline, improve and engage.
For organizations as vast as Government, the digital age brings potential enabling solutions in many disparate areas. Already locally, Service NSW has made an impact as it seeks to take transactions online in the same way that the banks did with the creation of online banking. Similarly, across Australia, government service delivery is being improved in a multitude of ways, from the provisions of free timetable apps to use of voice recognition software and other tools that reduce the complexity of simply making contact.

And in the Government marketing and communications field, outsiders may be surprised to hear that Government departments were early adopters of social media. The various police and emergency services may have been unexpected early users of tools like Facebook but nowadays they continue to evolve and improve approaches to content creation, accessibility and governance while others still debate “social media policy”. At least one head of a high profile department in the emergency services area has said that he couldn’t now imagine business without access to key social media tools. 

Meanwhile, and entirely unconnected in different departments, Governments were also early adopters of successfully using digital media channels to tightly target their broadcast messages, particularly to young people warning of the dangers of smoking and irresponsible driving. 

And all the way back in 2008, after years of booking multiple pages of newspaper jobs ads each week, I was involved in moving Government recruitment advertising online as the "new medium" was both more effective and a fraction of the  cost. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a more compelling or simple business case.

And coming bang up to date, one of the most extraordinary milestones of my time in Government was to see two “digital” campaigns, Pretty Shady and Get Your Hand Off It each achieve more than a million views on You Tube. From my time in the media, I knew that demonstrating actual results was the publisher's Holy Grail and here was a medium that showed us we had a million views. One million. It's probably more now. (I’m told the Victorian Government also launched a digital campaign called Dumb Ways to Die. Did quite well apparently*.) 

So in summary, we’ve got Governments across Australia looking variously at digital service delivery, increasing community engagement through social media enabled dialogue and departments everywhere launching apps and other digital tools to improve access to information. The “Open Government” movement is seeing increasing amounts of data released for public access and money is being saved across the board through the use of digital media for advertising. 

So I confess I’m getting a little frustrated by the amount of time and effort being spent talking about “Digital Government” as if it were some futuristic (and distant) ideal. It’s inevitable that notoriously risk averse organisations will want to take their time and work on the process, but clearly, the problem with applying old style market analysis in the digital age is that your findings might tell you to buy MySpace.

Taking into account the appropriately careful approach that public sector organizations must take, it seems to me that instead of further abstract discussions on digital government, instead there are three initiatives that would be useful areas of focus:

The first is that we all have to help make sure that everything that is happening in the next few months at the DTO is shared across Government departments. Everything. Methodologies used and not used, risk management strategies and performance reports. I’ve no doubt whatsoever that based on their current impressive record, the DTO team will make this happen. The rest of us though need to help spread the word far and wide. Not everyone is currently listening.  

Secondly, we must find ways of sharing all the proven "home grown" solutions with other organizations in the public sector, ideally worldwide. It’s undeniably true that there are differences between states and indeed countries, but the single biggest learning of my time in Government was that the similarities are often more important than the differences. (eg Most nations have an issue with obesity. All those that have cars and mobile phones have a problem with people texting while driving. It’s plain daft to look at these problems as local issues. Even if we can just get into the habit of sharinginsights, we will always be better off than starting with a blank sheet of paper.)

Thirdly, and possibly the hardest thing to achieve is we must find ways of giving people in public sector organisations permission to fail in the pursuit of better. As long as lessons are learned, failures can always be learning experiences and it’s the role of new public service leaders to create environments that allow this to happen. 

If we can make these three areas our focus, we can reduce the amount of time pontificating abstractly about “Digital Government” and instead put our wholehearted support behind the people who are best placed to make it happen. 

The people currently working in the public service. 
It’s probably not a great idea for another money spinning conference, but it is a cause we can all get behind. 

#letsdoit
About the Author.
Alun Probert is a communications and marketing veteran and having worked on comms with five different Premiers in a decade in Government is now Head of GovCom, independent specialists in public sector communications and engagement.  

Get in touch at alun@govcomgroup.com.au
*Astonishingly, Dumb Ways to Die has been seen by over 100 Million people.

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Friday, November 06, 2015

Economic value should be a benefit, but not the reason for open data

I've been reading various views and reflecting on the DataStart competition.

There's a shift I've been observing in how some people in government talk about open data that is making me quite uncomfortable.

I like that the commercial world is finally taking note of the value of open data and the prospect to build businesses using it.

I like that corporations are beginning to adopt some of the techniques of openness pioneered in the public sector and use them to build usability, value and (hopefully) profits.

I like that the government is taking a firm position on innovation and has finally begun to realise that Australia needs to have a strong and effective digital strategy with senior leadership to remain a relevant first world nation in a world increasingly built on data.

However there's one thing that does concern me.

There's been a progressive shift in language from certain government levels that suggests that the primary reason for releasing public sector information in open, reusable formats is for economic benefit.

Other benefits, such as the ability to hold government to account, improve policy development and assessment and the social benefits of open data in areas such as health, emergency management, education and employment, have been downplayed or ignored.

We've seen hackathons run in Australia on government data for six years now, with over 1,500 web services and apps developed by teams.

The vast majority of these apps and sites focused on social, policy or accountability benefits - very few were developed specifically with economic goals, even in competition categories focused on entrepreneurship.

These competitions have showcased a wide variety of benefits for open data, and agencies have, for the most part, heard this. However the language from the top of government is all about commercialisation and creating businesses from data, the other benefits ignored.

Exemplifying this trend, the DataStart competition doesn't specifically exclude non-commercial entrants, however there's no cash prize at the end for any such winner, the $200,000 investment package prize is restricted to those entrants who squeeze out a commercially viable business (as defined by RightClick Capital and Polleniser).

Other entrants can get, at best, some support from the Department and maybe a five-day start-up bootcamp in Sydney.

The message being sent is clear - non-commercial ideas for open data need not apply.

Essentially the DataStart competition puts the economic benefit of open data ahead of any other benefit - and again this isn't a bad thing. There's reason to support the commercial value of open data, just as there's reason to support the social and policy value of this data.

What is concerning is that the message from government is shifting towards making this economic benefit the main reason for opening up, or improving the quality, of government data.

This could lead into a situation where the data prioritised for collection, cleaning and open release is the data with commercial value, over data that has accountability or social value to Australia.

It attaches a price signal to open data - it must be commercially valuable, or it's not valued.

This flies against the spirit and full value of open government data.

I hope that we do not see governments making commercial decisions on whether to open up data based on the number and perceived economic value of the start-ups they foster.

Government has a bigger role in this, it should focus on public value - balancing how this is achieved, via commercial value, social value or the accountability necessary for a democracy.

So yay for DataStart, but it would be unfortunate if economic value became the reason, rather than one of the benefits, of opening up Australian government data to the public.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Government launches DataStart fund to foster open data startups, but which problem is it trying to solve?

A few days ago the Australian government announced the launch of the DataStart fund, to be managed by Polleniser and with the involvement of RightClick Capital, which aims to foster open data driven startups with commercial ideas.

The pilot nine month process will see 20 startups pitch to a board of government and industry judges, with a winner to receive $200,000 in support to get their business off the ground.

This is an area that people in the open data scene have been discussing for a few years now, on the back of the low rate of initiatives coming out of hack events in Australia that go on to some form of commercial existence, let alone financial success.

Initiatives in this area are always good, however I worry about what problem this is designed to solve.

Is it the government's problem that startups aren't using lots of open data to facilitate their businesses, or is it an actual problem where startup businesses with viable commercial ideas involving open data cannot locate appropriate funding options?

I wonder whether the first step should be to ensure that the open data being released by government is both the right data for companies to use to deliver on commercial needs and is being released to a commercial standard.

Frankly while I totally support the increasingly open release of data there's very little that I see being released at a commercially ready level and granularity. Weather and public transport data at state level being a few of the exceptions.

There will be startup opportunists who bake a little open data into their startups to access this fund. There also may (I hope) be a few hack participants able to take their open data fuelled ideas forward in a more commercial way.

I am sure the government will happily support both types through this initiative in the hope this creates some momentum - and I truly hope it does.

However unless these start-ups have solid ideas with strong business cases and could essentially be profitable even if they had to collect the data themselves or pay for it, by and large government is still an unreliable source of timely and relevant open data.

Right now data.gov.au has a shoestring budget and no funds have ever been allocated by an Australian government to support agencies to develop and implement effective open data release processes.

While the team at data.gov.au has done a fantastic job with very little, and the ball is now truly rolling in agencies, which are increasingly interested in releasing datasets for public reuse, the lack of foundational funding means that the frequency of data collection, data quality and data release tends to be highly variable across government open datasets.

Right now I would prefer to see funds reinvested into ensuring government provides reliable data rather than on fostering businesses build on data sources that are insufficiently robust or could disappear overnight with a Ministerial or agency-level decision.

I know both the government and Polleniser are authentically enthusiastic and supportive of fostering open data driven startups. I hope that in coming weeks we see budgets allocated to help agencies provide reliable and robust open data sets, not just to fostering companies built on an unreliable base.

For now, register for a DataSmart information session (to be held in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Canberra at DataStart.com.au (I will be at the Canberra event, so feel free to say hi).

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