Thursday, November 27, 2014

Govinnovate 2014 liveblog Day 3

We're into the third and final day for GovInnovate 2014, with masterclasses from Mark Headd and Dominic Campbell.

For the proceedings, follow #govinnovate on Twitter or the liveblog below.

Live Blog GovInnovate 2014 liveblog day 3

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Becoming an iPhone, not a vending machine - GovInnovate 2014

This morning at GovInnovate 2014, Mark Headd from Accela spoke on the topic of civic hacking - a movement that involves people helping improve their society through spontaneous and unpaid volunteering.

He highlighted the example of a group in the UK who, while out on a night out, found a broken bike rack and set about repairing it.

These types of acts are contrary to the popularised notion of hacking, which involves malicious invasion, theft and destruction of virtual properties - data, systems, websites and physical devices connected to digital networks.

However civic hacking is a very powerful force and an expression of people's desire to improve their own environments and societies, to contribute in a positive way.

Mark spoke about government as a platform, suggesting that government must become more like an iPhone than a vending machine, in that rather than delivering everything itself, end-to-end, that government focus on the 'irreducible core' of functions and allow the community, not-for-profits and businesses deliver everything else, including services build on and for government.

He said that Apple's most significant innovation was opening up the iPhone to third part apps, resulting in an explosion of creativity and innovation, and building the iOS platform, first phones and then tablets, into the phenomenon it is today.

The challenge for government is in ensuring that it releases data and services in appropriate services for reuse - not simply dumping spreadsheets online as open data, but developing APIs and other data services which allow data and government services to have a community endpoint, enabling civic hackers to generate services and solutions of value to the community.

He also said that where government is focused on delivering services, it must take note of the 'design paths', the routes chosen by citizens to achieve a destination.

Similar to worn paths across public areas, civic hackers are now creating design paths technologically - redeveloping government and commercial services to suit their own needs.

Governments that adopt these two principles - enable civic hackers, and follow the design paths, are likely to become vastly more effective at meeting citizen needs while reducing costs and complexity.

Mark finished by saying that the window for innovation is still open for government, however that window may not remain open indefinitely - technology is not forgiving and the community is powering ahead.

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Liveblog for Govinnovate 2014 Day 2

We're into day 2 of GovInnovate, with a focus on IT security.

Keep an eye on the liveblog below and the Twitter hashtag #govinnovate

Live Blog GovInnovate 2014 liveblog Day 2

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

GovInnovate Day 1: Government must do more than tinker around the edges

This morning at GovInnovate 2014 we heard a keynote from Dominic Campbell, founder and CEO of FutureGov.
Dominic made a strong point that governments can't continue to cut 5% from their costs each year and expect to continue to improve service delivery.

He said that ultimately this strategy would stop agencies from being able to deliver effectively services, potentially resulting in disastrous collapses, social damage and even deaths.

As such, Dominic suggested that governments needed to invest in redesigning their service delivery from end-to-end, employing a design-based process and codesign principles to involve the people who receive the services in the conceptual design of how the service is access and delivered.

As an example, Dominic pointed to the Casserole system his company had codesigned as a replacement to increasingly costly and unviable 'meals on wheels' services.

Taking a transactional approach, Casserole recognised that meal delivery was based on supply and demand. Some people wanted to eat, while some had surplus food or enjoyed to cook - what they had to do was design a system to connect the two groups in a mutually beneficial way.

Using a codesign approach, FutureGov developed Casserole to connect home cooks with people needing food provision.

Casserole was developed without the involvement of government, initially prototyping on a single street. It subsequently expanded to a council region and now extends across many council regions in the UK - to the places where it is wanted and needed.

Over 5,000 cooks are now registered with the system, with relationships between food provider and receiver having lasted up to three years so far.
The keys to the success of the service were the inclusion of users in the design process and the elegant design of the solution, which respects users and makes it as easy as possible to access and use.

The project has had side social benefits as well, fostering strong relationships between people which improves their quality of life.

Dominic believes that this kind of design process, involving the 'relentless exposure of bureaucrats to communities' will lead to far better services for citizens, delivered at lower costs to governments.
However they do not naturally evolve from a progressive cost-reduction approach. They require a reinvention of government services.

In conclusion Dominic pointed out that the community is done waiting for government and increasingly looking for alternative solutions to meet its needs.

If government doesn't get on this curve, it will become increasingly ineffective and irrelevant, undermining the supposed 'efficiency' of reduced cost through degraded service delivery.

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Liveblog for Govinnovate 2014 Day 1

Over the next few days I will be liveblogging and tweeting from GovInnovate 2014, so follow my blog and Twitter feed for all the latest views on the use of digital within government.

Live Blog GovInnovate 2014 Day 1

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Monday, November 03, 2014

The future of intelligence is distributed - and so is the future of government

In 2011 an IBM computer, Watson, beat human competitors at Jeopardy! 

This was a new landmark in artificial intelligence - a computer capable of correctly responding to plain English questions, in real time, by figuring out their intent.

At the time Watson was a computer as big as a room, and it was the only one of its kind in the world.

The original Watson still exists, as discussed in this Wired article, The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World, however it is no longer alone.

Hundreds of Watsons are now in operation - not as room-sized computers, but operating 'in the cloud', as distributed software across thousands of open-source servers.

People can access the intellect and computing power of these Watsons through any computing device connected to the internet.

Even more significantly, like many artificial intelligences, Watson is a learning machine that gets more knowledgeable and able to find insights the more it learns. Whenever a Watson learns something, making a new connection, that knowledge is shared with every Watson - making it a distributed intelligence, able to learn at rates far faster than even a single supercomputer, or human, is able to learn.

The power of Watson isn't in the revolutionary algorithms that power its learning, it's in the network itself - how separate Watsons can share knowledge and learn from each other.

This is how humans evolved civilisation - by capturing, codifying, storing and sharing knowledge in sounds, images and words to pass it on from one individual to another.

However Watson hints at a more robust future for human intelligence, and for how we govern ourselves.

Humans have proven over the centuries that having more learners with better knowledge sharing means faster progress and better decision-making. Books, universal schooling and the internet have shown how dramatically a society can progress when appropriate knowledge sharing systems are in place.

The key is to focus on the size and complexity of the networks, not the expertise of individual 'nodes' (you might call them humans).

For computers this means that the more Watsons we create, and the more complex the knowledge sharing between them, the faster they will learn.

For governments this means the greater the transparency, and the more informed citizens are participating in knowledge sharing, the better the decisions and outcomes will be.

Now this isn't how government is currently constituted. The notion of representative democracy is that governance is handed to experts and specialists who live and breathe government so the rest of the population doesn't have to.

We elect politicians who are supposed to representative the interests of their electorates, and appoint bureaucrats whose role is to provide specialist knowledge and operate the machinery of government - develop policy, design and deliver programs, enforce laws and support citizens in emergencies.

By its nature this approach to government relies on experts who are placed separately to the population - often even physically removed and concentrated in a city like Canberra, Washington, Ottawa, Brazilia, Naypyidaw or Putrajaya.

This group (elected and appointed public servants alike) tend to become inwards focused - focused on how to make government keep working, not on whether it actually works and delivers for citizens.

Particularly inwardly focused governments tend to become so removed from their citizens that they are overthrown - though they've usually replaced with a not-dissimilar system.

Now we can do much better.

Rather than focusing on electing and appointing individual experts - the 'nodes' in our governance system, governments need to focus on the network that interconnects citizens, government, business, not-for-profits and other entities.

Rather than limiting decision making to a small core of elected officials (supported by appointed and self-nominated 'experts'), we need to design decision-making systems which empower broad groups of citizens to self-inform and involve themselves at appropriate steps of decision-making processes.

This isn't quite direct democracy - where the population weighs in on every issue, but it certainly is a few steps removed from the alienating 'representative democracy' that many countries use today.

What this model of governance allows for is far more agile and iterative policy debates, rapid testing and improvement of programs and managed distributed community support - where anyone in a community can offer to help others within a framework which values, supports and rewards their involvement, rather than looks at it with suspicion and places many barriers in the way.

Of course we need the mechanisms designed to support this model of government, and the notion that they will simply evolve out of our existing system is quite naive.

Our current governance structures are evolutionary - based on the principle that better approaches will beat out ineffective and inefficient ones. Both history and animal evolution have shown that inefficient organisms can survive for extremely long times, and can require radical environmental change (such as mass extinction events) for new forms to be successful.

On top of this the evolution of government is particularly slow as there's far fewer connections between the 200-odd national governments in the world than between the 200+ Watson artificial intelligences in the world.

While every Watson learns what other Watsons learn rapidly, governments have stilted and formal mechanisms for connection that mean that it can take decades - or even longer - for them to recognise successes and failures in others. 

In other words, while we have a diverse group of governments all attempting to solve many of the same basic problems, the network effect isn't working as they are all too inward focused and have focused on developing expertise 'nodes' (individuals) rather than expert networks (connections).

This isn't something that can be fixed by one, or even a group of ten or more governments - thereby leaving humanity in the position of having to repeat the same errors time and time again, approving the same drugs, testing the same welfare systems, trialing the same legal regimes, even when we have examples of their failures and successes we could be learning from.

So therefore the best solution - perhaps the only workable solution for the likely duration of human civilisation on this planet - is to do what some of our forefather did and design new forms of government in a planned way.

Rather than letting governments slowly and haphazardly evolve through trial and error, we should take a leaf out of the book of engineers, and place a concerted effort into designing governance systems that meet human needs.

These systems should involve and nurture strong networks, focusing on the connections rather than the nodes - allowing us to both leverage the full capabilities of society in its own betterment and to rapidly adjust settings when environments and needs change.

We managed to design our way from the primitive and basic computers of the 1950s to distributed artificial intelligences in less than 70 years.

What could we do if we placed the same resources and attention on designing governance systems that suited modern society's needs?

And it all comes down to applying a distributed model to governance - both its design and its operation, rather than focusing on the elevation of individual experts and leaders to rule over us.

It's a big challenge, but for a species that went from horses to spaceships in two generations, it surely isn't an impossible one.

And given that societies thrive or die depending on how they are governed, are we willing to take the the risk and hope that our current governance and political systems simple evolve into more effective forms within a human lifespan?

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Use of government open data creeping into universities

In September I was honoured to be invited to speak at the first Best Practice in Data Journalism seminar for Australia at Melbourne University, hosted by the Centre for Advancing Journalism.

The event included many of Australia's leading data journalists, together with academics and other representatives working in the data space.

At the event I was glad to see that a number of Masters students in the university were using government open data to create visualisations and derive insights.

Richard Sinnott has now published a public list of some of these projects in the Asia-Pacific data journalism and data visualisation group at LinkedIn, which I've included below.

These have been been developed in ten weeks or less and are works in progress, so consider them appropriately.

Federal government open data mash-up:

Visualising Victorian lobbyists, clients, companies, donors:
(wait for it to load as there is a large complex graph).
Hopefully straightforward to drive/use...

Using Twitter for Melbourne transport congestion:
(final scenarios coming soon)

Using Twitter for World Cup 2014:
(can we identify events in games through Twitter sentiment) - pretty much yes as long as enough goals scored!
Also finalising scenarios on are Italians really more emotional than Germans (sentiment +/- on Twitter!)

What politicians are tweeting in Victoria:

What politicians are tweeting in Federal government:

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Don't blame the technology, blame the humans

This week one of the top stories for one of Australia's leading newspapers has been the purported rape of a woman after she met a man using the 'Tinder' matchmaking app.

Rape is a terrible act and unacceptable in every circumstance.

However the newspaper chose to make Tinder the story, not the rape.

Tinder is a mobile application designed to help people meet prospective dates.

It simply alerts users to other Tinder users who fall within a specified age range and gender and are within a certain distance of your location, lettings you know whether you have any mutual friends.

The alerted user then decides whether they like the look of a person from a supplied photo and gives them the option to privately message, and if desired, hook up.

Users must actively choose to turn on Tinder and can reject others without the other user ever knowing.

In other words, Tinder isn't much different to visiting a bar and looking around to see who seems to be your age and your 'type'.

Tinder's popularity stems from its ability to allow users to be discreet when seeking a partner. It gives users control over their dating choices - when they are available, who can be matched to them and whether or not they wish to be approached. In other words it's a little better than hanging around in pubs and nightclubs hoping to meet the perfect partner and avoid undesired come-ons.

In many senses the app is no different to popular online dating websites like HeyCupid and RSVP. it is simply a technological tool adding convenience and control to matchmaking.

Like all other technologies and software Tinder is neither good nor bad, but simply meets a human need.

So when a newspaper uses headline like 'Police warning after Tinder date ends in gang rape' and
'Tinder 'gang-rape victim' withdraws statement' it really gets my back up.

The approach creates an inappropriate connection between a neutral technology and a disgusting human act.

If the lady in question had simply met her alleged attackers in a pub, the newspaper would likely have not reported the story, or reported it very differently - they would not have used a headline 'Police warning after pub date ends in gang rape'.

This type of reporting is part of what holds back the use of digital technologies by government agencies, and it is a damn shame.

When senior managers who don't use social tools only read, hear and see bad news articles which blame or associate specific technologies with human misconduct it can creates an inappropriate association and make digital seems more dangerous to use than it actually is.

I wish I had a dollar for every media story sensationalising the failings of Facebook, Twitter, Google, RSVP, Tinder and other social tools when the real failing is in the human users.

Yes there are risks to all technologies. Cars and other road vehicles kill over 1,000 Australians each year and many other people are hurt when using other technologies, from paper cuts to knife wounds.

However let's try to keep things in proportion. There's few technologies out there specifically designed to harm people and these are usually carefully controlled, like guns and explosives.

The vast majority of technology are neutral, able to be used for good or bad - harming humans through accident or deliberate misuse.

Mitigating these risks is possible. Obsessing over them is unnecessary.

So if you're ever confronted in the workplace by a colleague or manager who quotes a headline like Police warning after Tinder date ends in gang rape' agree with them that the event is tragic and horrible.

But remind them that it was a human act that made it tragic and horrible. It is not necessarily a fault of the technological tool.

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Thursday, October 09, 2014

IP Australia releases open data including over 100 years of patent, trademark, design and plant breeder rights records

In a great step forward for Australian open data, IP Australia has, for the first time in history, released over 100 years of patent, trademark, design and plant breeder rights records as free publicly accessible and machine-readable data.

Released through (at, while not a real-time feed, the information contained on Australia's innovation history is staggering.

Note that the main data file is 430Mb as a zip, it can take some time to download and process.

It will be interesting to see how this data might be used over the next year and particularly in future hack competitions, such as GovHack 2015.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

How current events play out in search requests - terrorism & related terms in Google trends

While agencies often invest significant money into tools for tracking trends on social media, one of the simplest ways to detect and monitor the rise and fall of key topics and issues online is through Google Trends.

Google Trends tracks the frequency of use of specific search words in Google searches. This represents the majority of online and mobile searches in countries like Australia (93%) and the US (68%)

As a free service, Google Trends has been used over the years to monitor trends in seasonal diseases, such as influenza and dengue fever, to track the relative level of attention paid to politicians, the number of mentions of sports during grand final seasons, and to understand the impact of advertising on product sales.

I used the service back in 2006-2007 to help track a government agency's rebranding program, and have used it subsequently, both with and outside government, to track the level of interest in particular issues and topics.

So today I decided to see what Google Trends can tell us about the level of interest or concern in terrorism, specifically related to ISIS and concerns about muslim extremists.

I chose five main words to track - 'Terrorist', 'ISIS', 'Islam', 'Muslim' and 'Burqa' - which told an interesting story.

Until May 2010 the burqa does not appear to be a particular concern for Australians, with few searches of the term.

However since then it has become more topical, with some interest throughout 2011, then a sudden surge in September 2014 when the 'ban the burqa' movement began to receive significant political support and media coverage.

In contrast, terrorist was a term of interests to Australians in 2004 and particularly in the second half of 2005, with surging interest in July and November of that year. Following this, it settled down into a largely quiescent state, with only a small surge in November 2008 interrupting the mostly flat line.

This changed in August 2014, with a huge rise in searches for the term across Australia resulting in the highest level of searches for the term in the history of Google Trends in September this year.

The same trend can be seen for mentions of ISIS, which were flat until May 2014 and have rapidly escalated since. Early mentions of the term presumably relate to other uses of the term (such as the Egyptian god), with the sudden rise in searches only attributable to the rise of the Islamic State.

Searches for Islam and Muslim have also been rising this year after a long largely flat period. While these terms are the subject of many legitimate searches related to the culture and religion, the recent rise in searches does tend to suggest and correlate with the rise in searches for terror-related terms, indicating that people have linked the terms in some way, at least out of curiosity.

It's possible to compare and contrast these trends with global trends in Google Trends, per the chart below.

This chart provides evidence of growing global interest in terms such as Islam, Muslim and, particularly, ISIS. However it shows little international concern over the burqa or regarding terrorism.

This can be seen in detail when looking at individual countries.

For example while similar trends of increased interest in searching the term ISIS are visible for the USUK, Canada, SwedenJapan, Thailand and many others, only a relative few see the burqa as a rising source of concern and many also are not experiencing heightened searches for terms such as islam or muslim.

This may be coincidental, or may reflect political statements and media reports on these topics - a more detailed review of coverage would be needed to confirm direct links.

However given that researchers have found that Google Trends can provide an accurate view of community concerns regarding infectious diseases and product trends, I believe there's sound reasons to suppose a correlation between what leaders say and what people search for.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Is government paying enough attention to privacy in its mobile apps?

Australian internet usage has just reached a tipping point, with more Aussies accessing the internet via their smartphones and tablets than via laptops and desktop computers.

This has been reflected in web usage statistics, with several agencies I talk to reporting that they now receive more of their website traffic from mobile devices than from desktop and laptop computers - particularly when excluding their own staff from the statistics.

There have also now been over 500 mobile apps designed, commissioned or reused by Australian government agencies and councils to deliver information, access services and report issues, including 69 apps from Federal agencies80 from Victorian government agencies22 from Queensland government agencies and many from local councils around the country.

There's even a few notable games, such as the ABS's Run That Town and Victoria's MetroTrains Dumb Ways to Die.

As a result there's an increasing need for agencies to pay attention to how they design mobile apps to ensure they meet appropriate accessibility and privacy standards.

The latter part of this, privacy, was the subject of a recent study and guide from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) - Mobile privacy: A better practice guide for mobile app developers.

The guide reported that privacy was a key consideration for citizens, with a 2013 study by the OAIC finding that 62 per cent of Australians opt not to use smartphone apps because of concerns about the way personal information would be used.

The guide also mentioned a similar study in the US by the Pew Research Centre in 2013 that found that 51 per cent of teenage app users had avoided certain apps over privacy concerns, and over a quarter had uninstalled an app because it was collecting personal information they did not wish to share.

Now that's all fine when Australian governments are designing apps properly.

However the OAIC took part in an international 'sweep' on mobile app privacy back in May. As part of this the OAIC examined 53 popular free iOS apps, with a focus on apps produced by or on behalf of Australian businesses AND Australian Government agencies.

The OAIC found that a significant number of these mobile apps did not meet Australian privacy law requirements.

‘Of particular concern was that almost 70% of the apps we looked at failed to provide the user with a privacy policy or terms and conditions that addressed privacy prior to the app being downloaded’, Mr Pilgrim said.

The OAIC also found that almost 25% of the apps examined did not appear to have privacy communications tailored for a small screen.

Only 15% of the Australian-developed apps the OAIC examined provided a clear explanation of how they would collect, use and disclose personal information, with the most ‘privacy friendly’ apps offering brief, easy to understand explanations of what the app would and would not collect and use based on a user granting permission.

I'm sure the OAIC has privately fed back information to agencies on how their apps failed to meet Australian privacy and actions are underway to rectify this.

Other agencies and councils that have developed, are developing or have partnered with commercial mobile apps also need to be aware of the risks they are taking on if they don't adequately meet Australian privacy law.

Under the updated law that came into effect earlier this year, penalties for government agencies and corporations range up to a million dollars - making the omission of a privacy statement or use of user data without clear permission quite an expensive proposition.

Hopefully agencies are aware of the OAIC's report and are ensuring that user privacy is taken into account within their mobile apps.

If not, I hope we see some high profile examples to ensure that other agencies change their behaviour.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Civic hackers, government's hidden allies - an interview with Mark Headd of Accelera

This is the fifth in a series of interviews I'm doing as part of Delib Australia's media partnership with CeBIT in support of GovInnovate. I'll also be livetweeting and blogging the conference on 25-27 November.

For some people helping government use technology to better serve the public is their job, for others it’s their passion.

Mark Headd is firmly in the latter category.

Mark began his career as a government professional with a Masters in Public Administration working in New York’s state government in the late 1990s.

He fell into the technology sphere by accident, becoming interested in the burgeoning internet and how it was impacting society and government.

After stints as a policy advisor to the Delaware State Governor and then the state’s CIO Mark left government to start a new career as a programmer.

He taught himself how to code and worked as a software engineer for ten years.

Then, in around 2008, Mark came across Apps for Democracy, entered and won a prize and was hooked.

The competition reinvigorated his interest in government and how to leverage the skills and passion of people outside it to help.

He went to work for Code for America as Director of Government Relations, assisting governments to craft open data and civic participation policies and advocating for civic innovation.

Then Mark went back inside, working as the Chief Data Officer of the City of Philadelphia, developing and implementing an open data and government transparency plan for the city.

His latest move was earlier this year, to Accela, where he currently works as a Technical Evangelist, working with civic hackers to help governments improve how they operate and govern.

Mark told me that his biggest learning from the civic hacking movement in the United States was that there are lots of people out there who are interested, talented and want to help.

“They want to help because they care about their communities, not necessarily because they love particular governments. The sheer number of people willing and able to help is often surprising to public servants.”

Mark said that technology development and adoption are often difficult in government, “we are increasingly reaching a point where governments will implement technology in different ways.”

He cited the example of in the US, where after a disastrous launch the President reached out to the private sector to help.

Mark says that governments often find that in the civic hacking community they have a hidden partner they’re not be aware of outside of government.

“However to take advantage of this governments must handle data a little differently, engage a little differently”.

Mark says that “it’s never been easier to make software or work with data, so more people are looking to government for access to these to help.”

In Mark’s experience, accessing this outside help shouldn’t be left to the technology or ICT teams, “these types of units tend to be internally facing, focused on serving the needs of other parts of government. There’s often not a lot of experience in these groups for engaging with external individuals and groups.”

He says that the first thing a government needs to do to get out of its own way was to involve people experiencedin external engagement.

“Engaging with civic hackers is simply engaging with a different cohort of citizens.”

Mark does believe there are some risks that governments need to mitigate when engaging these groups, but they aren’t insurmountable.

“There’s always the risk that a partnership won’t go well. However governments already have lots of risks that they have sound frameworks for managing.”

He said that the risk he most often heard was “how to we ensure we don’t release data that we shouldn’t release”.

To do this, Mark says, ask other governments what they’ve released and their experience of what is most used.”

There’s already agencies releasing data around the world, so the best way to mitigate a data risk is to find out what others have done and use their lessons learnt.”

He said that governments need to think about what data they want to make available and have used.

“Start with data that is already public but is malformed –such as in a PDF report or other format difficult to reuse. Once an agency has experience in these areas and infrastructure built to support it, move on to other data.”

In Mark’s view releasing data isn’t the end goal, “I believe that governments need to start thinking about their role in the civic technology chain.”

“If you ask a government IT employee they often self-identify as a builder, they build things that people use.”

“Governments need to realise that their role is changing. They will build less and become a platform, a steward, of the data that other people use to build things for the public.”

This sounds like a big shift, but as Mark pointed out, it’s no bigger than what we’ve already seen in the last ten years.

“If you had described to a government official ten years ago that it would be impossible to deliver services to the public or do their job as a public servant without the internet, they would have laughed at you and not believed it.”

“We’re in the same boat today – when you tell a public official that they won’t be building services for the public, instead releasing the data that allows others to build those services, many simply don’t believe it.”

Mark believes political leadership is important to foster open data and what lies beyond it.

“Politicians need to realise that people are going to get the data someway, somehow, so it is better to use it as an engagement tool and to build trust than to try and lock it down.”

He believes media criticism of government activities is going to happen anyway and that the potential for innovation and economic development far outweigh the short-term risk of people criticizing government.

“All around the world we see governments making announcements that they are committing to the open data movement. We also need clear measures to evaluate whether they are meeting their own commitments, something we can count.”

Alongside open data Mark believes that there’s room for discussing government procurement processes, particularly for buying and developing software.

“The issue occurred at a time when websites were easier to build than ever before. It was a real eye opener for people that the most powerful government in the world couldn’t do what a group of kids in tight jeans could do.”

“So we’re now having a really interesting discussion about how government could procure and develop software better.”

Mark says that we’re still in the early days for civic hacking and governments need to be prepared for a far more engaged future.

“Look at an event like GovHack, which has grown enormously over the last few years. We know events like this are going to continue to grow and they are going to want more data.”

What governments can do to prepared for that is to think about what data they can release and what can they do to leverage the interest to their own benefit.”

“That’s a huge opportunity for government. Let’s use the months before the next GovHack to figure out what data people want and use it to get some benefit for agencies and the public. How can government participate as a full partner?”

He identified there was a trend towards more specific hack events, on topics such as health and transport.

“This is a really good way for governments to get more focused participation on topics of concern to them.”

“The products and end results coming out of these events are very tangible to public officials, such as a transport app. I’m literally been at events where teams will present a finished product and government officials will say I get it now, I understand.”

He believes that as more of these targeted events are held, we’ll reach a tipping point where people running operational units in agencies understand how products and services can be derived from the data their agencies hold.

Mark said he was looking forward to presenting atGovInnovate to share some of the US’s experience with open data and civic hacking.

“I don’t know if people in Australia are aware of what is happening at state and local levels in the US. That’s where a lot of the really innovative work is happening.”

You’ll be able to hear more from Mark at GovInnovate on 25-27 November in Canberra.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Infographic: Australian government agencies and councils have now sent 2 million tweets and have 3.9 million followers

I've been tracking the active Twitter accounts of Australian government agencies and councils for over four years now.

In February 2013 I reported that the number of tweets by government agencies and councils had reached one million in January of that year, and eleven months laters in November 2013 I reported that the number of tweets had exceeded 1.5 million.

At the time I predicted that it would take a shorter time to reach two million tweets from 1.5 million than the eleven months it took to reach 1.5 million from one million. I then predicted that the two million tweets level would be reached around 2014.

I was half right. It was faster to reach two million tweets - taking only ten months - however by my count it wasn't reached until this month, September 2014.

Given I'm sure I've missed a few active accounts, and I excluded deleted and decommissioned ones, I'm comfortable with a two month margin of error.

Many of the numbers numbers have more than doubled since January 2013. Agencies are tweeting three times as frequently and the total number of followers has increased 2.22 times.

To celebrate the occasion, I've created an infographic of the key numbers (below), as I did at the one million milestone (compare it with the one million tweet infographic, which is here).

You can view my raw figures and analysis in my Google spreadsheet and I'll provide more information and analysis in coming weeks.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What penalties are there for agencies and individuals who breach government security and accessibility policies for websites and online channels?

I regularly hear stories from people in government agencies and councils about how their organisation isn't meeting mandated security and accessibility requirements for their websites and broader online presence.

Often this is because there's insufficient time, money or a lack of understanding of the mandated requirements by either the business owners or the vendor doing the work. I still remember an experienced developer at a web development company claiming that in his ten years of working on government websites he'd never understood that accessibility was a legal requirement.

Sometimes I can understand and accept these reasons. 

Ministers set deadlines, as do real world events, this can constrain the full process of testing the security and accessibility of a website. 

Equally some campaigns are spread across different channels, and the budget allocated to online doesn't always allow for the best possible outcomes - or there's some 'bling' requested by senior management that eats the budget of the project very quickly. Again these can make it difficult to find the money to do any necessary testing and adjustment. 

In a few cases I get told that security or accessibility was simply "not important" to senior management, the business owner or the ICT team/vendors doing the work. 

These cases I could never condone, and it did affect my public service career when I stood up to senior people who held this attitude - even when I 'won' the point and was able to ensure websites were delivered to government-mandated minimum requirements.

This last group still worries me - and I've heard several new stories in the last month along the same line.

The fact these people are still around is disheartening, and raises a major question for me:

What penalties exist for agencies or individuals who deliberately go against the government's mandated policies and standards for websites, on topics such as security and accessibility?

I'm not aware of any public servant ever being investigated, sanctioned, retrained, demoted, moved or sacked after making a decision to ignore or water down website requirements.

In fact I can recall a few times where they were promoted and rewarded for their work in delivering outcomes cost-effectively and quickly.

Of course there's potential legal ramifications for ignoring both security and accessibility requirements - however it is generally the agency that takes on this risk, rather than the individual who exposed them to it.

In some cases the individual may not even have been the business owner, or has moved on to a different role, even a different agency.

This type of behaviour is generally picked up and addressed when an individual breaches finance, procurement or HR guidelines.

I'd like to see the same apply for websites - the front door of the modern government.

Whether a federal agency or local council, you serve citizens through your online presence, and putting them at security risk, or creating sites that a significant proportion of your audience can't access by not meeting mandated standards and policies is simply not on.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are more likely to use Facebook than the general Australian population

I've witnessed indigenous communications teams in government agencies dismiss the use of social media in indigenous engagement out of a belief that indigenous Australians prefer face-to-face communication and that those in remote communities had significant access issues to the Internet.

While these two views may be true, it's good to see some actual research on the topic by the McNair Ingenuity Research Institute.

As reported by SBS and in BandT, the Institute surveyed four-hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders nationally on their media habits.

The results found that Facebook use by this group was twenty per cent higher than the national population average.

Lead Survey Researcher Matt Balogh said that typically across Australia 42 per cent of the adult population had a Facebook account, whereas 68 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in metropolitan areas of the capital cities used Facebook.

In regional towns, 61 per cent of Indigenous Australians used Facebook and in remote communities it fell to 44 per cent - still above the national population average.

Due to poor access to desktop computers and broadband, the research found that most remote users relied on mobile devices for Facebook access. As a result, Balogh said to BandT, “Indigenous Australians living in remote areas are having a completely different experience of social networks and the Internet than mainstream Australia”.

So if you're engaging with Indigenous Australian audiences, don't dismiss social media.

The research is ongoing, so expect more insights in coming years.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Designing the sharing state - an interview with Steve Schmid of the Open Technology Foundation

This is the fourth in a series of interviews I'm doing as part of Delib Australia's media partnership with CeBIT in support of GovInnovate. I'll also be livetweeting and blogging the conference on 25-27 November.

View other posts in this series.

With thousands of governments at local, state and national level around the world that need many of the same technological systems to govern effectively, why do governments often believe they must develop new enterprise systems and their related assets (ie guidelines, policies, methods and other shareable ICT assets) from scratch?

This question triggered the creation of one of Australia’s most interesting and innovative organisations, the Open Technology Foundation.

Founded in 2011 with the support of the South Australian government and Carnegie Mellon University Australia, the Open Technology Foundation (or OTF), has the mission to help facilitate technology sharing at all levels of government across Australia and New Zealand.

The OTF’s leader, Stephen Schmid, is passionate about the work his organisation is doing.

“All governments perform the same basic functions but historically we have built our own solutions to meet a need. This tide is changing."

He said, “a very cost effective method of provisioning services is to investigate and potentially reuse what other governments have done when faced with the same challenge – sharing rather than reinventing."

Steve isn’t a newcomer to this vision for government.

After working for Microsoft in Redmond, Worldcom in Colorado Springs and IBM, Steve’s last role in South Australian Government was as Director of the state government’s ICT division, which is responsible for whole-of-government voice and data systems.

“A single data network and voice network servicing all government departments provides significant efficiencies”, Steve says, “Other states could leverage this model as they explore opportunities for converged technologies.”

This work led Steve to the view there was a strong need for a sharing program to support connected governments, and through his role at the OTF he’s working to build a bridge for cooperation between jurisdictions.

The work has already had some significant successes.

“We work cooperatively to facilitate sharing between public administrations across Australia and New Zealand. The OTF is also working on a range of projects with Vietnam and implementing a global knowledge-sharing platform for interoperable technology solutions”

The road has, at times, been bumpy. Steve says that “one federal agency asked us ‘who gave you approval to represent Australia”.

He told me that he doesn’t see the OTF as representing Australia, “we represent our members, jurisdictions who wish to participate in a sharing program with other jurisdictions. We create our own mandate. And everything the OTF does is open to every jurisdiction, with a focus on tangible outcomes.”

Sharing technology resources isn’t simply a nice idea. Steve believes there are significant opportunities to reduce the cost of provisioning public services while improving service delivery, “we’re here for Australian & New Zealand governments to leverage the investments of other jurisdictions and reuse them – in software, materials and other services. We also help share our [AU & NZ] knowledge with other countries, especially in the Asia Pacific region.”

Steve is not the only one who believes these outcomes are worthwhile.

A number of key Australian agencies and governments are represented on the OTF’s governing council. This includes Defense, the Bureau of Meteorology, the New Zealand Government and Australian state governments such as NSW, Queensland and South Australia.

Steve says that there’s also some urgency about the work. Europe is moving ahead with interoperability solutions and technology sharing at a great rate, and the US is moving forward with NIEM, the National Information Exchange Model.

He says that “Australia is still at the starting line, and we can’t afford to be there much longer.”

Steve also discussed four projects the OTF is working on for delivery in the next twelve months.

“Our first project is about modern design for a sustainable government”.

Steve says the aim of this project was to provide a set of principles for developing portable government platforms, including associated guidelines and procurement clauses.

“There was an interoperability approach developed by Australian government back in 2006, but things have progressed since then.”

The OTF aims to deliver an outcome that allows platforms to be portable not only in Australia and New Zealand, but globally.

“European Commission have expressed interest in being involved and we will potentially also have the UN involved, linking into all major regional governments at a global level.”

If the project is successful it will make it far easier for agencies to add standard principles into their procurement clauses. For Australian technology companies this opens a door to global business, providing clarity on how they provide a specific service.

Steve says that they hope to turn the project over to a standards body at a future stage to ensure its sustainability and broader uptake.

The OTF’s second project is related to managing shared guidelines for internal ICT management and for managing vendors. He believes this project will assist both governments and vendors.

“Having vendors spend additional money to meet the separate requirements for each jurisdiction adds significantly to the cost of software to government and the development costs of vendors.”

Steve says that common shared guidelines for many of our technology needs that can be used as a baseline for our public administrations would remove this extra cost.

The project is being led by the NSW government with the initial goal of developing a set of guidelines for cloud that can be shared and reused across jurisdictions.

OTF involves all of its participating jurisdictions in the development process, and hopes to use it as a model for further shared guidelines.

The third project involves investigating whether the European Commission’s eProcurement platform can be reused by Australian governments.

“The EC’s platform was developed to be an end-to-end eProcurement platform for European countries and was released under an open source license. We’re evaluating modules of the platform with Australian state governments to test whether it meets their needs. So far we’ve found it just works, out of the box”

Steve says that the platform, Open e-PRIOR, has been developed to international standards that suite Australian governments and is a good example of how systems developed elsewhere in the world can be reused by local jurisdictions.

“We’ve found that most governments are willing to share most of their investment in ICT with other governments, beyond their secure systems. The primary barriers to sharing are the cultural ones and appropriate licensing.”

Finally, Steve says the OTF is working on building a platform for managing shared enterprise platforms.

“Our member governments feel there is no place for them currently to place their shared enterprise platforms for reuse by other governments.”

Steve says this isn’t simply a Forge for code sharing, but a robust system that incorporates management and support to provide the quality control and support necessary for large government system.

The development of this ITIL-based platform is being led by the Queensland government, with the support of other OTF members. If successful it could revolutionise how Australian governments share their shareable platforms.

Steve believes these projects are some of the foundation stones for building a technology-sharing environment for Australian and New Zealand governments, and go far beyond earlier government attempts at interoperability.

If successful Steve believes they will help herald in an age of more connected and responsive government, dramatically cutting the cost and need for agencies to develop their own new systems.

It’s a big goal but a worthy one.

“Gaining the required levels of participation to make this sharing cooperation a real success story is challenging, but with the continued support of our member governments and networks, we will all benefit in the long term.”

You’ll be able to hear more from Steve at GovInnovate on 25-27 November in Canberra.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

What happened at the National Library's Digiculture event: Social Media and the Public Sector

On Tuesday 16 September I participated in the panel for the National Library's Digiculture event: Social Media and the Public Sector, along with Facebook's Mia Garlick and the Department of Finance's John Sheridan.

It was well attended and well-discussed on Twitter (under #digiculture), with the biggest laughs of the afternoon coming from the surprising (blooper) revelation that John's army career had lasted 22,000 years.
He certainly looks good for his age.

One attendee, Kenji Walker, used his sketching skills to create a visual record of the panel, which I've embedded below - thanks for this Kenji!

Finally The Mandarin published an article on the event, Social media in public sector: beat the journos, don’t say anything stupid 

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Where is the use of digital by Australian governments headed? An interview with John Wells

This is the third in a series of interviews I'm doing as part of Delib Australia's media partnership with CeBIT in support of GovInnovate. I'll also be livetweeting and blogging the conference on 25-27 November.

View other posts in this series.

As one of the national organisers of Innovation GovCamp Australia, founder of GovCampus and producer of Gov 2.0 Radio, John Wells is one of Australia’s leading advocates for public sector innovation. John is also a co-director of Cofluence, the content partner of Hannover Fairs /CeBIT GovInnovate annual summit.

I spoke with John, who is chairing a stream at GovInnovate, to discover where he thinks Australian government is heading in the digital area.

John said that Australia was experiencing a period of rapid take-up and acceleration in open data. “In the last 12 months alone there’s been a seven-fold increase in the amount of data available in, and events such as GovHack are growing rapidly in size and participation by not only hackers, but also government data custodians.”

Internationally, John says, there are also changes afoot. “Across western countries the role of digital in government is subtly shifting towards a more evolved focus on public sector renewal, beyond the traditional approaches to reform.”

“We’ve seen an evolution from the connectivity of eGovernment to the public conversation of Gov 2.0 and now through to the collaborative and participative opportunities that open government presents.”

He believes the future of politics and public administration will be less about left vs right and more about open vs closed and that government organisations as well as citizens must be prepared to capitalise on these collaborative opportunities.

John said that GovInnovate 2014 will be a good opportunity to tease out this change and the impact it will have on the role of Australia’s public sector.

“Having both Mark Headd from Philadelphia and Dominic Campbell from London at the conference mean that the panel discussions will benefit from both a European and North American perspective.”

“It will give participants an opportunity to contrast national programs across the US with local government initiatives in Britain, discussing topical civic approaches from Code for America through to NESTA’s work in the UK.”

John also believes that there’s an opportunity to build on the public sector’s interest in innovation, building on the enthusiasm to adopt more strategic and sophisticated approaches.

“In a public sector context innovation can suffer from being undervalued or viewed in cliqued terms, such as ‘light bulb moments’. Digital has a large role to play in supporting this evolution, particularly in helping people to step beyond their comfort zones.”

John says that digital touches many aspects of an agency and has become a leading driver of innovation.

“As we learnt at the recent national GovCamp on innovation, digital touches on and impacts leadership, program design, engagement of communities and stakeholders, on collaboration across the silos of the public sector and between the public sector, business and civil society.”

Because of this, John feels it is increasingly important for public servants to step beyond what is safe and familiar, challenging themselves to test existing practice and experiment with new approaches to governance.

“What I hear from public sector leaders is that it is important for all of us to learn how to hear about and engage with topics and learning opportunities that are unfamiliar, that address areas outside their personal work scope and comfort zones, as we live in an era where increasingly solutions are found through interdisciplinary practices.”

He believes that GovInnovate will be an opportunity for participants to challenge themselves in this way. “Coming to the conference with a mindset of valuing diverse experiences will help ensure that participants take away something new that will refresh their perspective of what is possible.”

You’ll be able to hear more from John at GovInnovate on 25-27 November in Canberra.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

A view on the maiden tweets of Australia's federal politicians

A politician's maiden speech in parliament is usually constructed with great thought and care. It serves as a platform on which they plan to stand for the rest of their term, the issues they intend to prosecute and the topics on which they prefer to engage.

However can the same be said of their first tweets?

I've compiled all of the first tweets of our currently sitting federal politicians (the 79% with Twitter accounts) into both a timeline and a word cloud to provide a glimpse into how much thought they put into their first declaration on this highly public platform.

You may judge for yourself whether the first tweets of politicians provides an insight into their character, interests and key concerns - noting that only one current federal politician created their Twitter account before entering politics.




The most common words from the first tweets of current Australian Federal politicians

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Friday, September 12, 2014

New South Wales's iVote® system - an interview with Ian Brightwell

This is the second in a series of interviews I'm doing as part of Delib Australia's media partnership with CeBIT in support of GovInnovate. I'll also be livetweeting and blogging the conference on 25-27 November.

View other posts in this series.

If I had to pick someone to be in charge of developing an electronic voting system, I’d want them both to be highly skilled at technical project management and a passionate supporter of democracy.

Ian Brightwell fits both criteria in spades.

“My first voting experience was in 1974 when the Whitlam government was re-elected. Then in 1975, when this government was dismissed, I recall seeing people arguing in the street over politics, which I had not seen before and indeed not seen since.

“After the dismissal in 1975 and before the election, no-one I knew said they would vote liberal, and then we saw a liberal landslide. It was at that point I realised the virtues of our electoral system and value of the secret ballot, allowing people to express their view without undue influence from others.”

As the CIO of the NSW Electoral Commission, Ian Brightwell is responsible not only for all of the commission’s IT infrastructure, but also for Australia’s most exciting online electronic voting initiative, the iVote® system.

The iVote® system is an internet-based voting platform which has been custom-built to support the NSW government’s requirement for remote voting at parliamentary elections. Under current legislation only electors with vision or physical disabilities and remote or voters absent from NSW on election day are entitled to use the system.

In 2011, the first time the iVote® system was used, some 46,684 electors used it while over 200,000 people are expected to use the system in the next state election in 2015.

Ian says that despite the limited number of voters currently entitled to use the iVote® system, it has already demonstrated its value.

In 2011, he says, there was a much larger group of out-of-state voters than they had seen in previous elections, as people didn't have to go to specific locations to vote.

Ian says he can see the iVote® system being expanded to other groups of voters in the future, but at this stage he is comfortable with using the platform for those voters the Commission find difficult to service– where it is hard to get to them manually –it also allows more time for the system to be refined before it is scaled.

One group Ian identified as a potential future target audience were postal voters.

The head of Australia Post has said that first class mail may not be available within 5 – 10 years as a result of Australia Post reducing postal services in line with declining demand. On this basis it is possible that all Australian jurisdictions with postal voting will need a replacement approach for future elections.

He also sees absent voting at local government elections as an area the iVote® system can help. This is particularly a concern because NSW’s Local Government legislation doesn’t permit absent voting at a council elections (this problem will be exacerbated if the proposal by Sydney City Council to require businesses to vote is enacted). For NSW local government elections there’s around 300,000 more non voters fined than at state elections because absent voters are not able to vote.

Another area of interest has been for plebiscites and ‘mini-polls’. Ian demonstrated the system at Parliament House in Sydney, primarily to minor party representatives. They were excited about the potential for using a system like iVote® to include more direct democracy in our system through polling voters on what they thought on different topics.

Ian isn’t sure this is necessarily a good idea, “I’m not sure voters are always well placed to make decisions on complex individual topics, due to the depth of material to absorb and the range of options, but it is an interesting proposition which needs further exploration.”

He believes that “voters are far better at picking the people they want to represent them for parliamentary decision-making.”

Ian does however believe that the iVote® system could be valuable for referendums, which he says there’s a current reluctance to run due to the cost, “the marginal cost of electronic voting, once the system is established, is much lower than that of paper voting.”

One area that Ian doesn’t see the iVote® system moving into any time soon, is replacing the local voting booth.

He believes paper voting is a key method for retaining confidence and trust in the electoral system – particularly given the concerns that have been raised overseas with electronic voting systems in physical locations.

Ian also said that, “for the most part with our current arrangement, replacing attendance paper voting with electronic attendance voting would be quite costly, and there would have to be clear set of benefits to offset that cost.”

Ian believes there isn’t a strong push for Australia to move to electronic attendance voting as there’s sufficient trust in the existing electoral system.

However, he says “with manual systems voters have to trust electoral authorities to do their job and although there is some ability for voters to see this in polling places there can be no evidence votes are finally counted as cast because the final count happens weeks later in remote offices and electors cannot observer this process.

However, with an electronic system you can provide the elector with a little more transparency, though they will have to understand the more complex electronic process to fully appreciate the verification information they have been provided – it’s a different kind of trust.”

Speaking of trust, the iVote® system has been designed with modern security to ensure that the system is as secure and unshakable as possible. Ian says they have updated the security and will conduct penetration testing to mitigate the risk of hacking at the 2015 election.

Also, he says, as the system is in place only during election periods, there’s a very limited window for a hacker to break through security and alter the results.

While no electronic system is perfect, he’s confident that his team has done everything possible to ensure that NSW voters using the iVote® system can trust that their vote will be recorded and counted accurately.

Ian says that the international experience has been that electronic voting isn’t a universal preference if offered to all electors anyway, “a few countries have offered electronic voting to all citizens, and have found that it peaks out at 20-30% of voters, with others preferring physical polling places or other forms of voting.”

“In Australia voting is a community and social activity and taking away a polling place from a small community can create enormous controversy and concern in the community.”

Ian thinks that we should not take away from physical voting or the opportunity for civic social contact, but definitely should offer a diversity of ways to vote, with electronic voting part of the mix.

In particular Ian said that there are issues with areas, with large and growing populations, where in older areas the available polling places can get overrun and newer areas there are no available venues for polling places. He says there is a need to manage the pressure on the attendance voting system which is already feeling over loaded.

While the iVote® system may not be used now to replace physical voting, this still leaves a large number of voters it can service. Ian says that these days 20-30% of votes are not attendance votes (in district votes in a polling places or pre-poll).

an also says that, from the data we have on voting patterns by voting channel, all voting channels generally have a similar electoral outcome. That is electoral commissions see similar voting trends across attendance, postal, absent voting channels. Electronic voting in NSW in 2011 was no exception, it gave a similar electoral outcome to other channels, so in the future this pattern should hold for other jurisdictions that choose to use electronic voting. This is a useful way of determining if major electoral fraud has occurred in just one voting channel.

While the iVote® system has been designed for NSW state voting, Ian’s team kept in mind that it could be used for local government voting in the future. He says that NSW has far less turnout for local elections, “we send out up to 300,000 more penalty notices for local government voting than for state voting.”

Ian also says that other states and territories are watching his team’s work closely, “we’ve had lots of interest from other states, federally and overseas, and expect interest to translate to some action after the next election.”

Looking into the future, Ian said that he didn’t see huge change in voting approaches in the next five to ten years, but expects an ongoing shift from postal to electronic and increasing levels of absent voting driving electronic voting.

He also sees increasing levels of early voting being the first avenue for attendance electronic voting being used “it is already immensely popular and we see 50-100% increase in early voting election on election - but parties hate it as they have to get their party volunteers there for 2-3 weeks prior to election day and it is hard for them to manage their election message. The public love it as it frees them up on election day. The reality is the public will win this one in the long run.”

Australia already has a very high voter participation rate, so while in the US electronic voting may be seen as a way to raise voting participation, Ian says that’s not a consideration in Australia, “as we have such a high participation rate we have has bipartisan support for electronic voting.”

You’ll be able to hear more from Ian at GovInnovate on 25-27 November in Canberra.

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