On open source and open government

In April I went to the Open Source // Open Society conference, two very full days of inspiring brain food, practical workshops and chances to connect over coffee with a passionate community of people interested in what the world looks like when it is a more open place. It was great to hear the call to action from the top that government should embrace open government and it made me think a lot about how I could be open in my work here at Result 10.

In recent times, the word ‘open’ has been used and abused. For me open means aiding and encouraging the human urge to share, explore and improve. The basic principle of open source is if you can use, study, share and improve a thing it is considered ‘open’ but you have to be able to do all four of these things. It’s how we can ensure we’re contributing back to the community.

The most powerful communications infrastructure that has ever existed, the internet, was built on open source software. Open source software runs the majority of all technology today. You may be familiar with Linux which runs approximately 70% of all web servers on the internet and approximately 95% of all super computers. At the Department of Internal Affairs, we use open source software such as: the Common Web Platform, which is a platform-as-a-service for New Zealand Government websites used as the content management system for the ICT website, and WordPress, which runs the Web Toolkit site. But open source is not just about software; it’s about people sharing and a creative culture that makes all of these things successful.

 

More than just talk

Many organisations say they love open source, but what does that actually mean? You might ask how they make money if they just release all of their code back into a public realm where anyone can have access to it. The answer is simpler than I would have thought: they understand that loving open source also means contributing back to the community that the code came from; they sell their skills and expertise rather than the code. It’s about service not products and when we really think about it, that’s what the whole service industry does. For example, rubbish collectors have no secrets around to how to collect the rubbish. They just provide the service and we are grateful.

I was pleased to see that the New Zealand government was represented at OS//OS, and we had an opportunity to be a part of the open source community and hear their ideas about what we could improve to become more open. The loudest call was for some consultation, as this community wants to be active and contribute their expertise. Fierce comments such as “lawyers are the possums of the tech industry” were celebrated when topics of technical policy came up.  A good example of open government practices is the USA response with the White House petitions site and open development of a White House play book:

Today, too many of our digital services projects do not work well, are delivered late, or are over budget. To increase the success rate of these projects, the US Government needs a new approach. We created a playbook of 13 key “plays” drawn from successful practices from the private sector and government that, if followed together, will help government build effective digital services.

What can we do right now?

Everyone acknowledged that we are learning how to become an open government and learning what that means. I was able to gather some ideas and insights about what we can do to be more open right now:

  • Use open file formats when sharing documents. Use .odt rather than .docx. Other open formats include HTML, PDF, JPEG or XML. .docx excludes those who don’t have a Microsoft licence from legally opening or using the files.
  • Think about the open standards, both for New Zealand and internationally.
  • Ask wider communities to contribute to our thoughts, plans and ideas – publish version 0.1 rather than 1.0. This will help build a more open culture through sharing and collaboration.
  • Think about using tools such as Github which are facilitating a private place that will only provide access to users with a govt.nz email address.
  • Contribute to commons; think about your copyright. Standard government copyright was created in the pre-digital age. We need to think about how appropriate it is. If government is working for all New Zealanders does it now follow that our content not belongs to all of us?
  • Publish more data sets (as long as they don’t compromise privacy), but say what they mean and help translate them. See Wiki New Zealand for a great example of this.
  • Push for open solutions and gently nudge the boundary further into the ‘open’.

Ultimately we need to aim for transparency, accountability, open citizen participation, open technology and open innovation. While I know that transparency is not enough to be open, I think it’s a good start. When New Zealand passed the Official Information Act in 1982, it was a world leader and set the legislative foundations for open government. However, because it was created in the pre-digital age it was premised on the idea that information needs to be requested rather than proactively shared. Now that we are in the digital age and have a ready platform for sharing how do we work with the OIA and build on it in everyday government practice?

We can learn a lot from others in this space, and the tech community in New Zealand is willing to share their expertise. How much better could government be if we harnessed this collective wisdom using digital channels?

I would love to hear your ideas on how we can become the open government we need to be. What will you do to be more open?

7 comments

  1. Comment #1. luciane:

    Particularly with agencies like ours (justice), which has the legal obligation to publish a great number of some very large document, changing PDFs to HTLM is nearly impossible. As document readers are getting better and internationally PDFs are being accepted, isn’t it time that DIA considers non- scanned PDF as acceptable form to publish on the web? Why not make documents in PDF formats acceptable for govt agencies and make such changes into the standards?

  2. Comment #2. Jonathan:

    @luciane: I know Justice generates a lot of documents. I would like to know why they can’t be created as HTML. It implies they aren’t being authored in a structured way to begin with, and that moving to a structured documentation format would have profound benefits for efficiency and openness.

  3. Comment #3. Jason Kiss

    Thanks for your question, Luciane. Government agencies have an obligation to publish information in accessible formats. PDFs have their use, particularly when it comes to delivering a digital version of a document with a specific visual layout or one that is intended for printing. But even well-produced, properly tagged, and otherwise accessible text-based PDFs have their issues. See https://webtoolkit.govt.nz/blog/2014/07/ms-word-not-an-accessible-alternative/ for more information.

    PDF reading software is getting better. Adobe announced last March that Adobe Reader will include screen reader support in Mac OS X: https://blogs.adobe.com/accessibility/2015/03/acrobat-dc-accessibility-update.html. This a great improvement. However, there remain accessibility concerns for users of other platforms, and the limitations of the format on mobile and small screen devices where the PDF’s content isn’t responsive and can’t reflow to the size of the screen. These are some of the reasons that PDF-only documents are also not accepted on Australian and Canadian government websites.

    Few, if any, government documents are born as PDFs. A solution to the whole document format question rests in the document production chain. For example, there are systems and tools for producing digital content that enable output to a whole variety of formats, including HTML and PDF. Implementing these solutions would require some enterprise-level technological change, as well as a cultural shift in how employees work, but they do exist, and need to be explored: It’s a mistake to bind the creation of digital content to a particular document format. The whole point of digital content is that it can be delivered and presented in all sorts of ways to meet the needs of the person or device or other circumstances.

    This is not to say that one cannot publish a PDF as the authoritative version of a document, but in order to make the content accessible to as many New Zealanders as possible, and to open it up to (re)use in different contexts, it needs to be provided in another format. In most cases, the best format will be HTML. Looking ahead, EPUB3 will be a much more flexible and accessible format for distributing large documents: http://idpf.org/epub/30.

  4. Comment #4. Nadia Webster:

    Thanks for this insightful summary of the Open Source Open Society Conference. To supplement your thoughts, you may also like to include reference to the NZ Government Open Access Licensing framework (NZGOAL), where the default is Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence; data.govt.nz, which is the central listing of open government data; the Declaration on Open and Transparent Government, which directs all Public Service agencies to release high value public data for reuse; the New Zealand Open Government Partnership Action Plan, which sets expectations that government will deliver to principles of transparency, accountability, civic participation and innovative use of ICT; and the Digital 5 Charter, which commits the New Zealand Government to open principles.

  5. Comment #5. Amie Holman

    @luciane I can understand your frustration with accessibility but it is an important aspect of what we do as public servants. As @Jason says it is about “cultural shift” and here at Result10 we have been working really hard to try to meet these standards, with varying levels of success I will refer you now to a blog one of our team wrote on our R10 Blueprint efforts. https://webtoolkit.govt.nz/blog/2015/05/result-10-digital-by-default-making-the-blueprint-accessible/

    @Nadia your references are a good first step. The question now is does it go far enough? Should we be considering more around software licenses or formats? How do you think we stack up next to the UK govt’s open source policy? see https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/making-software/open-source.html

  6. Comment #6. Nadia Webster

    I don’t think we do go far enough. As you can see there is an array of intentions, but no cohesive strategy. The D5 Charter mentions use of Open Source software so we can share with the other 4 nations. There is no government policy on the use of open source software. The Open Government Partnership is not well known across government, but should really be an umbrella for other ‘open’ initiatives.

    Regarding open standards, see the Open Government Ninjas discussion http://groups.open.org.nz/groups/ninja-talk/messages/topic/3gODYERDv0q7j9wG7rez2o/

  7. Comment #7. Amie Holman

    I agree, transparency will get us only so far but it’s a good start.
    How could we use the umbrella of OGP?
    Is it about saving and sharing in .odt format?

    I have one idea which is much less technical and more about sharing and culture. I would love for there to be a govt hub of designers (not just NZ), who can publish work or ideas publically. Let’s use our wider design community to greater effect, and attribute things to collaboration not individuals.

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