Australian Government leading the world on open data

By Stephen Easton

Monday May 8, 2017

Australia is one of the world’s leaders in providing government information to the public as open data, according to provisional rankings released by the Global Open Data Index.

The new list of 2016’s open data leaders and laggards was proposed last week but will not be finalised until June 15. The draft rankings can be challenged during a 30-day “dialogue phase” and may well be amended, but Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor is pleased nonetheless.

“I am delighted, but not surprised, to see Australia being ranked as the best in the world when it comes to open government data,” he said in a statement last week.

The main gaps, according to the Australian Government’s results, are information about land ownership and government spending. In these categories, the Commonwealth fails to display any of six attributes of good open data: open licensing, open standard machine-readable formats, instantly downloadable, up-to-date, publicly available, and free of charge.

Data on water quality gets a 50% grade, while all other areas are judged to have met 80% of the criteria or more.

“I’m delighted to see that our steadfast commitment to open data has been recognised globally by a renowned independent assessor,” Taylor added. “We must now ensure that we keep this momentum going in order to fill the gaps highlighted by the global index and build on our initial successes.”

Taiwan shares the top spot in the latest list of 94 self-governing “places” around the world, which has been drawn up by the Open Knowledge Network from survey work for the past five years. The research project aims to give governments around the world a handle on how well their open data efforts are going:

“By having a tool that is run by civil society, GODI creates valuable insights for government’s data publishers to understand where they have data gaps. It also shows how to make data more useable and eventually more impactful. GODI therefore provides important feedback that governments are usually lacking.”

Great Britain and France are in equal third, followed by Canada in fifth, Denmark sixth and New Zealand at number seven. Brazil, Latvia and the United States share eighth position in a three-way tie and Northern Ireland is next in eleventh place.

The scores are based not only on availability but also “findability and usability” of open data in 14 different categories that reflect typical national issues.

These include both planned and actual national government spending, procurement information, election results, company registers, land ownership, national maps and residential locations, administrative boundaries, national statistics, draft and final legislation, as well as water and air quality. The GODI methodology has changed in recent years, which means the results are not directly comparable over time.

Many new policymaking applications

Taylor claimed open data as a success story of the current government. He said increasing the 500 datasets that were available in 2013 to more than 20,000 had “delivered real benefits in innovation”.

“For example, the Geo-coded National Address File, which was released by the Government in February 2016, has been used for a wide range of business and operational purposes, such as infrastructure planning, business planning and analysis, logistics and service planning, emergency and disaster response,” he said.

“Another example is the National Map which allows us to better understand datasets for creating new businesses and applications.”

In a speech last week to a forum for chief data analytics officers in the public sector, Taylor said integrated datasets was an “exciting” new area for data specialists in the public service.

“They offer the greatest opportunity for Government to: prioritise resources in high cost areas like health, welfare and education; better allocate the limited funding for important services; target interventions and programs to deliver better outcomes; and reduce duplicative collection and analysis costs,” he said, referring to the multi-agency data integration project (MADIP) as one example.

“Geospatial analysis of average MBS expenditure by age pension recipients was undertaken in MADIP to identify expenditure patterns by region,” Taylor explained.

“The analysis showed that major population centres have high per capita Medicare expenditure, but also that regional and remote areas in New South Wales, such as the mid-north-coast and the far west, respectively, have significantly higher expenditure per capita than comparable areas in the other states and territories.

“It has also allowed the comparison of social security data with the Census, which for the first time, allowed us to compare general cohorts who are in the payment system with those who do not receive payments.”

Open data provides a lot of value to the public and can improve public service efficiency but, as sceptical observers have pointed out all along, it rarely serves to increase the transparency and accountability of governments. The new GODI survey methodology is based on the Open Data Charter and aims to consider each government’s efforts according to three broad criteria:

  • Each survey question measures a crucial aspect of either the legal, technical, or practical ‘openness’ of data. With this approach, we aim to reduce the potential bias towards single aspects of openness.
  • Our scoring follows a rationale in which we describe why a question is important for open data. We also explain cases why we should not score a question. Further explanations can be found in the table below or here.
  • The new scoring gives in total 40 points to open licenses/public domain status and machine-readable and open file formats. These technical and legal aspects of openness are the core of the Open Definition 2.1, and we seek to maintain a strong emphasis on them. However, aspects such timely publication, data availability and accessibility are equally important to access and use open data. Questions around data accessibility receive a score of in total 60 points.

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