Opening government data

Mid November saw Christchurch invaded (in the best of ways) by the Nethui South crowd. The day before, Open Data Day 2014 saw people from NZ’s open government and open data spheres meeting, catching up, plotting and scheming.

Again, in only the best of ways 🙂

I went down to represent the Govt.nz massif. With me was my colleague Rowan Smith, there on behalf of data.govt.nz. He was also there to help me answer any particularly technical questions.

I was there to introduce Govt.nz’s mission in life and work so far. More importantly, I was there to enlist the help of the community in making our API more fit for purpose. You can check out my PowerPoint slide deck (PPTX, 86KB), or read the transcipt at the end of this blog post.

Open Data Day is an interesting mix of a day. There are speakers like me, giving quick ‘lightning’ talks on relevant subjects. There are also ‘unconference’ sessions.

The topics for these are decided at the time, by the people in the room. Sometimes they come out of talks, sometimes people have arrived wanting to discuss them. Topics go up on a whiteboard, and are then selected through a simple voting process.

To my great joy, both of the unconference sessions I got to attend involved APIs. This was brilliant as I got to gather lots of really useful information, tools and tips for our dev team. I also got to learn heaps myself.

Check out the notes from the unconference sessions.

I had a few key take-aways from the day:

  • There are a lot of wonderful, smart people in the public and private sectors who want to work together using open data and open government practices.
  • We need to think carefully about the pitfalls around open data, so that we can avoid as many as possible. Chris Gallavin, Dean of Law at University of Canterbury, had some interesting thoughts on that.
  • APIs are gaining support throughout government. We weren’t the only government-related people enlisting help from the community. The folks from Better Public Services Result 9, for example, were there too, presenting their Better APIs for Business initiative.

I flew home from the day buzzing with excitement. Friday saw me talking more with people about some of the subjects we discussed on Thursday. There are lots more discussions on the way.

And I’m going to be keeping, on a Post-it on my screen, the following:

“Data is good, but information is better. Let’s not lose focus of that”.

Update: API and Mailmerge

In order to improve our API and Mailmerge functionality, we're taking them down until early next year. We'll take them down sometime between Tuesday and Friday next week. We still want to hear from you, though!

My next post will be an update on our API rebuild, the feedback we’ve been getting and what features the API will include. There’s still time to join the conversation — find the Govt.nz team on Twitter, the Open Government Ninjas forum or the Web Toolkit blog post.

Transcript of my Open Data Day 2014 presentation

Download the presentation (PPTX, 86KB)

[slide 1]
Hi there! It’s really great to see all of you here today. My name is aimee whitcroft, and I’m Content Designer Lead for the Govt.nz website. I’m going to be introducing us briefly today, and then hopefully eliciting your help 🙂

[slide 2]
As we all know, interacting with government can be a difficult process.

People don’t know where to start looking for government-related information online. Or they’re not sure which are the best sources of this information. Often it’s not clear how government services actually work, what the next steps are, or who the best people are to contact. Sometimes people need to interact with several government departments to access a service or to get something done – I’m sure many of us here know first hand how painful and confusing an experience that can be.

Finally, the unfortunate fact is that many of the people most in need of government services, or who access them most often, may also have low reach and engagement, low literacy levels or low digital ability.

[slide 3]
And that’s why we are here.

We launched the Govt.nz MVP – startup slang for ‘first simple, public version’ – in late July 2014. We replaced newzealand.govt.nz, which was set up to provide links to all government sites. At the moment, we have content owned by 44 agencies, and contact details for over 400.

Here are some of our current statistics since 29 July 2014. We have had almost 600,000 page views. 17% of our visitors are repeat visitors. 34% of our visitors come from outside New Zealand. 29% of the visits to our site take place on mobile phone. And 54% of our visits come from searches done on the internet. These aren’t our only metrics: we are always working to figure out what the best metrics are to measure our success.

[slide 4]
We have three primary goals.

The first is that we are absolutely human-centric. Our purpose is to figure out what people are trying to do and what’s getting in their way, and then we’re working with agencies to help lower those barriers. We also want to be a source of government info that people can trust. We are working to make sure our content is up-to-date and accurate. We are working with central sites like business.govt.nz. And we are always listening to feedback from our users on what they need, and working to make our site better and more useful for them.

We also want to be the home for pan-government and independent content for citizens.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for you all, we want to promote open and transparent government. We’re doing this through things like providing an open platform where New Zealanders can give us feedback about their online government experiences. We’re promoting the sharing and reuse of content – all of ours, unless specified, is CC-BY 3.0. There are a host of other things, too, including the fact that we also want to be the authoritative source of government directory and contact data.

[slide 5]
And on that note: we have an API. You can find it linked to in the footer of Govt.nz, or by by going to the link on this slide: www.govt.nz/api/v1. At present, it serves data from our Government A-Z directory: organisation names and acronyms, their contact details, managers, ministers, roles and sectors. At present, it outputs results in JSON or XML, and the instructions are in HTML. We know it’s a bit basic: a baby API, if you will. We’ve been focussing our efforts on things like getting some content onto the site.

[slide 6]
But we want to make our API better. And we were thinking that the open data and open government community would be the ideal people to help us do this! So, these are the sorts of questions we have for you all:

  • What would make it useful for you?
  • How do you think it should work (technically)?
  • Are there any output formats you think it should have that it doesn’t?
  • Where do you think it could be used?
  • Have you or your organisation already been using the API and if so, how?
  • What info could/should it carry? Eg:
    • Would a directory of consultations in progress across government be useful?
    • Should it be able to access all of government data?

[slide 7]
If you have something to tell us, please do. We’re looking not only for comment and questions, but also people who might want to form part of an API expert panel, to advise us on an ongoing basis. There are a few ways to contact us – emailing us at online@dia.govt.nz is best, but you can tweet us at @govtnz, too. And we’ve also posted our shoutout about our API on the Open Government Ninjas forum and the New Zealand Government Web Toolkit blog, so you can get involved in the discussions there, if you want 🙂

Thanks, everyone!

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