Opening up government data for public benefit

Keiran Hardy at the Mandarin (Australia): “…This post explains the open data movement and considers the benefits and risks of releasing government data as open data. It then outlines the steps taken by the Labor and Liberal governments in accordance with this trend. It argues that the Prime Minister’stask, while admirably intentioned, is likely to prove difficult due to ongoing challenges surrounding the requirements of privacy law and a public service culture that remains reluctant to release government data into the public domain….

A key purpose of releasing government data is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of services delivered by the government. For example, data on crops, weather and geography might be analysed to improve current approaches to farming and industry, or data on hospital admissions might be analysed alongside demographic and census data to improve the efficiency of health services in areas of need. It has been estimated that such innovation based on open data could benefit the Australian economy by up to $16 billion per year.

Another core benefit is that the open data movement is making gains in transparency and accountability, as a greater proportion of government decisions and operations are being shared with the public. These democratic values are made clear in the OGP’s Open Government Declaration, which aims to make governments ‘more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens’.

Open data can also improve democratic participation by allowing citizens to contribute to policy innovation. Events like GovHack, an annual Australian competition in which government, industry and the general public collaborate to find new uses for open government data, epitomise a growing trend towards service delivery informed by user input. The winner of the “Best Policy Insights Hack” at GovHack 2015 developed a software program for analysing which suburbs are best placed for rooftop solar investment.

At the same time, the release of government data poses significant risks to the privacy of Australian citizens. Much of the open data currently available is spatial (geographic or satellite) data, which is relatively unproblematic to post online as it poses minimal privacy risks. However, for the full benefits of open data to be gained, these kinds of data need to be supplemented with information on welfare payments, hospital admission rates and other potentially sensitive areas which could drive policy innovation.

Policy data in these areas would be de-identified — that is, all names, addresses and other obvious identifying information would be removed so that only aggregate or statistical data remains. However, debates continue as to the reliability of de-identification techniques, as there have been prominent examples of individuals being re-identified by cross-referencing datasets….

With regard to open data, a culture resistant to releasing government informationappears to be driven by several similar factors, including:

  • A generational preference amongst public service management for maintaining secrecy of information, whereas younger generations expect that data should be made freely available;
  • Concerns about the quality or accuracy of information being released;
  • Fear that mistakes or misconduct on behalf of government employees might be exposed;
  • Limited understanding of the benefits that can be gained from open data; and
  • A lack of leadership to help drive the open data movement.

If open data policies have a similar effect on public service culture as FOI legislation, it may be that open data policies in fact hinder transparency by having a chilling effect on government decision-making for fear of what might be exposed….

These legal and cultural hurdles will pose ongoing challenges for the Turnbull government in seeking to release greater amounts of government data as open data….(More)