How I Became an Open Data Convert

When I talk to my family and friends about open data…well, I soon stop. Their glazed look tells me I might as well save my breath. Just a couple of years ago I had no idea what open data was myself, then one day the penny dropped and I haven’t looked back. Luckily, there are lots of other enthusiasts out there to talk to.

So what IS open data? Well, in short, it’s data made available for reuse on the internet in a format that is non-proprietary and “machine readable”. Available for reuse means that there are explicit legal rights enabling the consumer to reuse the data for their own purposes. For government this means using the New Zealand Government Open Access Licensing (NZGOAL) Framework.

Non-proprietary simply means that you don’t need any specific brand of software to access and use the data. Machine readable means that it can be easily read or queried by a computer program. For example, it takes significant effort for a software program to read a table of data on a web page and extract the actual data from all of the HTML code that makes the page.

On the other hand, a simple CSV text file that contains columns of data separated by commas is predictable and easily consumed. There are other open data formats with varying complexities and benefits, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

My intro to open data

My involvement with open data began with implementing the New Zealand Charities Register as open data. The Register has a ton of rich information about the charitable sector that is updated daily. The data is licensed for reuse, and accessible through an Application Programming Interface (API)—which means applications can use it from across the Internet. It is also accessible through the Charities Register Advanced Search, a “Human Search Interface” (HSI) allowing anyone to search the data.

Open data purists would say that all you need is an API, but in my humble opinion, the HSI is important. If there was only an API, then as someone who struggled with level 2 programming at university, the data would be inaccessible to me. An HSI makes the data more open to the public at large, not just to software programmers.

While raising a celebratory drink with colleagues after the Declaration on Open and Transparent Government was approved by Cabinet in August last year, I had a conversation with a Scottish gentleman (who probably doesn’t even remember the conversation) who encouraged me to follow my passion, whatever it may be. So in my very next conversation that night I let that passion flow. That conversation eventually lead to the Charities Commission funding my secondment one day a week to the Secretariat for the Open Government Data and Information Reuse Chief Executive Steering Group (I still get tongue-tied saying that), from November 2011 to the present.

What excites me about open data is the potential it generates. Making data available for reuse creates opportunities for value to be added in innovative ways, creating better services for everyone, and enabling greater efficiencies. At the Secretariat, we maintain a programme aimed at encouraging and assisting all of government to proactively release high value public data—data collected using public funds.

Open data around the world

In July 2012, I was fortunate to attend, and present as part of a panel, at the 2012 International Open Government Data conference in Washington DC. There were more than 450 people there from 50 different countries, and another 4 000 online viewers. The theme of the conference was “putting data to use” and the Charities Register’s story was a good fit. Tweets during my presentation indicated that everyone appreciated hearing about specific examples of reuse; the range of benefits to both public and private sectors; the importance of a human search interface; and unintended uses of the data.

Through networking I shared our experiences and programme at the Secretariat with people from the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Russia, Moldova, China, Japan, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Argentina and Mexico. Despite having quite different motivations for driving open data, we face very similar challenges in our programmes to turn the culture around in our respective public sectors.

The US and UK take much of the limelight in leading the Open Government Data charge, but I was delighted to learn that people from many different countries are aware of New Zealand’s work in this area and hold us in high regard.

Moldova has an inspirational story of transformation in their country, in which open data has a starring role. While talking with the Moldovans at the conference, I discovered that they learned a great deal from New Zealand’s open data experience—largely from Keitha Booth speaking at the first conference in October 2010 and from our government websites.

But then it was my turn to learn from Moldova! In the true open data tradition, they took our ideas, those of others, and some of their own, and added more value to them. The result is a formula that worked very well, which they in turn shared with the rest of the world.

I could tell you much more about the lessons I learned at Washington, but that too is a topic for a future blog post…

2 comments

  1. Comment #1. Peter:

    Great article Paul. Thanks

  2. Comment #2. Brendon:

    Nice one Paul. I fully agree that following your passion produces the best results for everyone. Long may that passion continue!

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