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What I know to be true

2009 July 4
by Alan Noble

What I know to be true and what I hope for the taskforce

I’m Alan Noble, serial entrepreneur, technology junkie, and head of engineering at Google Australia/NZ. I’m delighted to be on the Gov2.0 taskforce in a personal capacity. After 25 years living and breathing technology, here’s what I know to be true and here’s what I hope to drive forward on the Gov2.0 taskforce.

Information is more powerful when it’s set free

Information is becoming a pervasive and free resource, driving the growth of the digital economy worldwide. And yet very useful, publicly funded, non-confidential public sector information, such as public transport data, is still locked up either behind Government firewalls or encumbered with onerous copyright restrictions, of little use to anyone. I want to see this PSI freely available to all. This will promote great social benefits, not least the immense potential for innovative new products and services to be developed here.  Google’s Victorian bushfires map is a great example, and was only possible because the Victorian Country Fire Authority had the foresight to put an RSS feed on their site.

Transparency promotes democracy and demands accountability

Australians want answers to questions like “How are you spending my money?” Government can do much more to promote a culture of pro-disclosure and transparency. Making government information more accessible online has the power to make Government more accountable and to increase participation from Australian citizens. This will go a long way in restoring trust in Government.

Change begins at home

In promoting the digital economy and fostering a culture of transparency and information sharing, Government must walk the walk and get with the digital program. The vast majority of computing  and information will be in the cloud and a younger generation will not know any differently. Our leaders today should embrace online communication and collaboration tools to be active participants in the community and open up a dialogue with citizens.

8 Responses
  1. 2009 July 4

    Thanks for your thoughts Alan.

    The CFA has a number of great services available.

    I follow @cfa_updates and use the number of bushfire map mashups available (which use the CFA data).

    I wish I could view CFA data and MFB data together, as I live close to the CFA/MFB border.

    This is a great map, from MFB, with filters available to use on the map.

  2. 2009 July 4

    Great post Alan and it is great to see you on the panel.

    I can not agree more with you and it is going to be a steep learning curve for all involved.

    One thing that does strike me is that the tagging of the initiative as “2.0″, while being understandable, should not detract from the work that governments need to do in getting up to speed with “1.0″.

    While many department sites are getting better, most sites are woeful. Their IA is still often organisation centric and confusing. Often one needs to know which section of an agency is driving something to find info.

    Of course the and many of the service agencies are exceptional exceptions but there is hundreds of agencies that are not up to scratch.

    One of the things that is holding this back is the efficiency dividends. I hear a lot around Canberra that agency websites (and their program sites) are being seen as soft targets to apply the efficiency dividends to.

    So, we need web 1.0 to get right first across the government while this great journey into web 2.0 is under way.

    Best of luck with the work you are doing.

  3. 2009 July 5

    Hi Alan: I’m sure you’re aware of and But think of what Google could do – being a global organisation – with the ability to put economic and other public sector data from different governments into a common data model! Imagine all this data presentable in a time series with the tools to run comparisons, correlations and multi-variate modelling and charting. It’s probably a naive vision though, because of the perceived vulnerability from the legislature and central policy agencies … but I know that if Google believes in a vision they can deliver it.

  4. 2009 July 6
    Tony Gilbert permalink

    As a privateer turned public servant, I am also pleased to see private sector participation in where government is headed in online service delivery. But I am also a pragmatist, so I have concerns about private sector motivation in this area. Perhaps you can help to ease my concerns, Alan.

    You say you want PSI to be freely available. Much information made freely available by government is quickly locked up for profit by entrepreneurial businesses who patent or otherwise copyright what is often the only logical/practical process to make sense of that information for public consumption. This is particularly true of data sets, and Google has built much of its success around such ventures.

    Is it really possible for business to participate altruistically in the birth of Gov 2.0? Or will its participation be primarily driven by the need to identify and exploit new business opportunities?

    I am impressed by what was achieved in the UK by letting private developers loose on government datasets in the form of a Web 2.0 developers’ competition, but I am also unhappy that some of these developers don’t feel able to share their code or even illustrate what they achieved with this data beyond the competition.

    It is a brave new world. I just hope it doesn’t turn into the new ‘wild west’ frontier.

  5. 2009 July 10

    As to what the private sector does with PSI…well, in the case of our company, we do something much more mundane. We use the AusTender data to identify trends in the public sector market, and provide more useful and meaningful information to both suppliers and agencies, each about the other, so to speak!

    We probably exist simply because the the data are collected for one purpose (accountability and transparency in relation to procurement), and in its original format for that purpose, the data are pretty turgid and unattractive. So we try to make it meaningful. No doubt the Government could do this, too, if it was minded, but that would mean it must understand the various requirements of other users of the data other than themselves. Is that the business of government?

    There’s some brilliant, similar examples elsewhere in the world, such as a site established by Onvia, a US firm with similar interests to ours. Through that site, they tracked the spending of all US Federal funds allocated as part of current economic recovery projects.

    I am personally very excited by the establishment of the Government 2.0 Taskforce. It has the potential to change the way government works, how citizens interact with government, both politically (as we’ve seen with the US election) and with government agencies.

    I will be very interested to learn of the Taskforce’s proposed workplan (and I don’t underestimate the challenge of identifying projects and priorities!!).

  6. 2009 July 7

    Hi Tony

    You were wondering what the private sector does when it gets access to PSI. One of our companies was working with a government agency that needed to geocode thousands of sites. The government agency staff didn’t have access to their own PSI, nor did it seem possible to buy it. So we bought a licence ourselves and built several tools: a free online geocoder and a batch geocoder. For several years the online geocoder has been available free as a public service (where we pay for a licence to PSI in order to make it available to the government and its clients). The geocoder is at

    We were paid to build a derivative based on the geocoder (a system that estimates water savings by geocoding where you are, finding the nearest BOM station, estimating rainfall and water saving etc). The client’s need for that ended years ago, but we’ve continued that online as a free public service:

    The licences and service fees cost us thousands of dollars to provide this free access to PSI. We get no business value from these systems, other than the satisfaction of knowing that people use them and get some value from them.

    You’ll find many more important examples of private sector contributions “for the public benefit” … just start with Google’s free Earth and many other products.

  7. 2009 July 10
    lisaharvey permalink

    This is exactly the story with PSI. Someone has a use for it and finds a reason to give some “unattractive” data a makeover and make it useful to more people. It is one of the raw materials of innovation.

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