A League ladder of PSI openness?
I attended a function at Parliament House on Wednesday night which was designed to showcase a number of things Google have on the boil, not least the usefulness of their product offerings to governments. Such things as Google Apps and Google’s general capacity to deliver the cloud not just to retail users but also to corporates. (Alan Noble attended today’s TF with a Google bumper sticker on the cover of his laptop which read “My other computer is a data centre”.)
I also got a better look at Wave. It looks more intriguing the more I see of it.
Google is making good progress getting hold of data to make its products – particularly Google Maps – even more useful, but it’s also hard for them not to be frustrated by the silly things which mean that data that you and I have already paid for governments to collect, data collected with the sole purpose of generating public benefits, is not simply, easily, quickly released into a serendipitous world in which we find out (so often to our own surprise) how useful it can become. Google can’t get good data on toilet maps despite the Federal Government’s having it (we earmarked this as an early win when our Taskforce began but at the halfway mark, I guess its status as an early win is running into ontological trouble. Now we’re fairly confident of a ‘better late than never’ win). And Google can’t get good data on the precise location of bicycle paths.
Then I had an idea. Since I conveyed it to Google, it seems only fair that I convey it to you. Why doesn’t Google report on governments’ preparedness to release data. It could produce a methodology and apply it consistently. Since Google Maps is an Australian originated product it would make sense to develop the methodology here where it could be applied in ‘beta’ form to Australia’s state governments.
One thing I’ve observed is that State Premiers like to claim that their state is the best or one of the best at something. State Oppositions also spend their time drawing attention to the ways in which the government they are opposing is sending their state to the dogs, choosing whatever comparative stats demonstrate their government’s relative under-performance. And of course there’s no reason to stop at state governments. National governments could also be compared.
The political obstacles to releasing most public sector information are not ‘hard’ ones. By that I mean that in almost all cases, releasing the kind of information that Google is after is not like raising a new tax or closing a school. The reason that the information has not been released is just that it’s a lot easier for a lot of people for it not to be released. Releasing it may involve legal advice and changes to copyright policy. It may involve some cost or inconvenience. And who knows what the information might be used for? Can officials be sure that the information can’t be used to embarrass them or the government? Usually they can’t be sure, and so they decide they’d better be on the safe side. So the reason the data is not being released is not because there are any clear political roadblocks to its release, but because any decision to release it must run the gamut of the that dark dank place which I call the Hall of a Thousand Cobwebs where so many worthy proposals die slowly, quietly and anonymously.
When there’s no political ’story’, no transgression by the government in not releasing the data it’s just so easy not to – even if it’s no real life or death issue for the government. But given the ’softness’ of the obstacles to release, the counterweight provided by a league ladder of openness of public sector information could often provide sufficient visibility for the issue to make a substantial difference.
I expect that Google would probably like someone else to run such a league ladder – like Transparency International. But in the spirit of releasing early and releasing often, it seems to me that Google (or anyone else who wants to) could get this ball rolling fairly quickly with a view to handing it over to others once they were ready to carry the baton.