In Australia, we naturally applaud moves toward greater openness and transparency in government, but is the bureaucracy ready to reveal all its cards by making hard-to-find data available in web and mobile device software applications?
If you want to know if crime is more frequent near liquor outlets in Washington DC, use your iPhone. If your car breaks down in the city and you need to walk to public transport, you can check neighbourhood safety on your iPhone.
Welcome to the digital public square.
Vivek Kundra, who became the United States Chief Information Officer in March, is one of its architects.
When he landed the job of Chief Technology Officer in Washington DC in 2007, Kundra asked why he couldn’t find performance details for government IT projects when he could easily get stock prices and performance data of public companies.
He wanted to track IT spend in real-time. Deciding the next year to lower costs, he joined with iStrategyLabs, an agency that helps sell ideas, to run a competition for mashups that would use government data stored in generic formats.
Within 30 days the competition, Apps for Democracy, had attracted 47 entries in the form of applications for the Web and mobile devices that garnered prizes worth $US20,000. The prize total rose to $US35,000 this year.
He also saw development costs drop massively. A slew of copycats sprung up: Apps for America, Apps for Democracy Finland, Apps for Democracy Belgium and NYC Big Apps.
Now there’s apps4nsw, announced this month by NSW Premier Nathan Rees at NSW Public Sphere, a talk-fest sponsored by MP and Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Penny Sharpe that brought together speakers from inside and outside government.
One speaker came from RailCorp, which earlier this year used copyright legislation to block an iPhone rail timetable application. In March, Rees stepped in, telling RailCorp to let developers use its data. Six months later, Sydney iPhone owners can browse rail timetables wherever they are.
Apps4nsw will see developers pitted against each other for prizes of $100,000. The new technologies, Rees says, will be a part of everyday life.
But with an ‘ideas’ component, experts worry that talk about “openness and transparency” will fail when translated into reality.
Unlike the American competition, which only asked for completed applications, the NSW competition has two prize categories, one of which is for “prototype” applications. The other seeks ideas for applications or services based around public or government data, according to the website.
In both cases the possibility exists that bureaucrats may have a hand in deciding an application’s final form.
“I can’t speak for the Premier,” said Sharpe when asked if Rees would intervene again if a prize-winning idea collided with a bureaucratic firewall. “And it’s a hypothetical. But… the premier is genuinely committed to an openness and transparency agenda within government.”
Dave Earley, a journalist with Brisbane’s The Courier-Mail, says new applications could help journalists analyse and present information so that people can easily consume it.
“With Freedom of Information laws… it’s difficult to get information that the government might not want you to see.”
Mark Pesce, author and honorary associate in the Digital Cultures Program at the University of Sydney, thinks the die is already cast. “There’s pressure coming from the public and the pressure is essentially deforming governmental institutions,” he says.
“RailCorp broke really quickly because so many people depend on data from RailCorp. We had to bend RailCorp to the breaking point to get that out of them. I think that this is going to happen and this is going to be the pattern.”
Rees says he does want web technologies to help people to interact with the government fairly and freely, but Sharpe admits that there are tensions. “Overcoming old habits of secrecy and control will take years,” Rees says.
Earley is cynical about the future. “If the journalist… used the data to find where there were a lot of problems, and they decided they didn’t like that, it would be interesting to see if they get embarrassed by revealing the data, whether they start pulling back.”
Proof of a conservative mindset is easily found. Look at the way they provide access to data.
Developers after transport and infrastructure data, for example, must fill out a form to apply for a data license, and fax it or email a scanned image. They then wait to be contacted by a departmental employee who issues a login giving access to a secure website. Apps For Democracy developers simply download files from a regular Web page.
“I think if you use the term ‘gift economy’ people shit their pants,” says Pesce, referring to the free operating system software Linux, put together in the 1990s by a group of like-minded developers.
He says that public service employees should try to become trusted experts in their field. He thinks this approach could lead to rich opportunities.
“Government is going to be dragged kicking and screaming into it whether government wants to or not,” he says. “Eventually the opportunity will be beaten into the government.
“The question is how much beating the government wants to take. The window is now open. It’s not going to get closed again.”
Matthew da Silva writes feature stories to fulfil a dream after working in communications and technical writing roles for two decades. He grew up in Sydney, lived in Japan for nine years and now lives on the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland. He blogs daily at Happy Antipodean.
Photo: Justin Marty