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Colin MacDonald is Chief Executive of the Department of Internal Affairs and Government Chief Information Officer. Here he reflects on the huge cultural change required by New Zealand government agencies in making data openly available, the benefits and the progress we are making.

In the time I’ve been involved in the government’s open data activities I’ve seen a genuine change in the attitude of agencies in making their data more open and available.

Until recently, I chaired the Data and Information Re-use Chief Executive’s Steering Group, which oversees how agencies are implementing the Declaration on Open and Transparent Government. All-in-all this is going well. Since Cabinet approved the Declaration in August 2011, we’ve seen a real increase in the amount of data agencies are releasing for re-use.

All government agencies are starting to incorporate the Declaration into their core business, and they have all assigned senior managers as data champions to lead this work. I’m really encouraged that none of the departments say they have any insurmountable barriers to adopting the Declaration.

Major Culture Change

I think the changes we are going through would be similar to what must have affected the public service in 1982 when the Official Information Act (OIA) replaced the Official Secrets Act. However, legislation like the OIA is a product of a time when computers were not widespread and very few people had the technology to easily manipulate or analyse datasets.

Globally there is a clear presumption of openness becoming the norm for non-personal, unclassified and non-confidential information held by government and there is much more proactive release. Much of it is in formats that can be manipulated using a standard computer. These changes, which are taking place in many countries, are seen as affirming transparency and the maintenance of democracy.

In New Zealand we are adapting to the idea that data should be actively released without waiting for someone to ask us for it, which is the approach we generally take under the OIA. This goes beyond openness and transparency to enable people to legally re-use government material for their own purposes.

This is a huge culture change. Data champions have told me people occasionally resist the principle that data should be open and available unless there are good reasons for it being closed. They have told me that some staff believe there’s no point releasing data because nobody wants it, or it needs too much work for the benefits that could come from releasing it.

However, we have numerous case studies that show there is a demand and the benefits can be worth the effort.

As an example, the Charities Register can be searched online and provides information about more than 25,000 registered charities. The register gives details about areas of operation, sector categories, activities, beneficiaries, annual financial position and performance, officers and charities they are associated with. Other applications can access the data to retrieve machine-readable results.

A different example is the ANZ Truckometer, which has found there is a correlation between the traffic flow data released by the NZ Transport Agency on selected routes and the GDP data from Statistics New Zealand. The traffic flow data gives a six months head-up on the GDP data. An example of data the public can use is the ASB Property Guide, which is an iPhone application that re-uses and adds value to property information from Quotable Value. The application retrieves Quotable Value’s capital value and land area information on a property plus information on other properties in the area.

Design for Privacy

Late last year I chaired a session at the International Ombudsmen Institute conference in Wellington where we had presentations on the United States’ Freedom of Information Act and the situation in Norway, where agencies actively give open access to a public record-keeping database that anyone with internet access can use.

One of the important questions discussed was how to ensure transparency without sacrificing privacy. The answer is to take a ‘privacy by design’ approach that, right from the start, considers good recordkeeping practices, open data, privacy considerations and information security.

We did this when I was at Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) and we developed the LINZ Data Service. This gives open access to some of the simple cadastral survey, property title and electoral layers from the Landonline data, without any of the private information attached to that data.

At this stage, most agencies aren’t going this far and are simply publishing data in report format, rather than as data that can be re-used. But as the case studies show, there are datasets available that can be re-used. If you look at the site you’ll find lots of examples of datasets in formats that researchers, analysts and businesses can use for their own purposes. These are often novel things we (the government) wouldn’t have predicted, such as the ANZ Truckometer.

It’s early days. The thinking behind releasing open data is well-developed, but the practice is taking time to catch up. But we’re getting there.

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