The open data movement is about more than government agencies being transparent, it's driving efficiencies across government and industry in Australia, says GovHack national coordinator Pia Waugh.
GovHack is an Australia-wide hackathon event where developers produce innovative tools and apps using open government data.
There are currently 3,677 datasets on data.gov.au, including an estimated 500 new datasets that were published in the few weeks leading up to GovHack 2014. More than 1,200 developers across Australia hacked away over a 48-hour period at this year’s event on 11-13 July.
Waugh gave examples of GovHack projects in the past that have been implemented in government and industry to help drive efficiencies.
The Open Budget project, developed during GovHack 2012, was implemented for this year’s Federal Budget. It’s a visualisation tool that allows citizens to easily see where different government agencies spend their money.
“The data.gov.au team worked with other people in the Department of Finance as well as people in Treasury to identify and publish raw data from the Budget, which we did for the first time this year,” said Waugh.
“We saved a lot of time and money for industry and journalists because they didn’t have to go and digitise it from scratch. It’s only a start; it isn’t the full Budget yet. But it was a lot of tables and stuff from the Budget made available in data form this year, for the first time with the help from The Open Budget team.”
The National Archives of Australia (NAA) also implemented a GovHack project from 2012. NAA launched PhotoSearch in 2013, which allows a user to quickly search an online image database of 110,000 digitised photographs from National Archive’s collection.
“It is something like 15 times faster than the system that the National Archives was using at the time. So it’s much more efficient, much more effective, and it was built in a weekend.”
Publishing datasets on the data.gov.au portal is all well and good, but it limits people’s ability to use them when published in formats that are difficult for machines or computers to read, said Waugh. For example, the team that developed The Open Budget project, for example, had to screen data in PDF format.
Waugh said she is using the GovHack event to gain feedback and ideas from participants on how to improve the delivery of data for programmers and developers.
“One of the teams this year had a software project where the source code that was provided by a department wasn’t complete. So they spent the first four hours finalising the code, improving the code and then they released it to the rest of the competition so everyone else could use it.
“We had one team last year who said there was something like 170 different spellings for the Department of Defence. So they gave us that feedback.”
Getting government agencies on board the open data movement in Australia has not always been easy, too. Waugh said agencies have been a bit reluctant to share their data due to concerns around the resources needed to ensure data is clean and of quality.
However, she reflected on how far the open data movement in Australia has come.
“Up until recently, open data used to just be seen as a retrospective or freedom of information thing. Now agencies are really starting to realise the benefits to them in improving their policies, services, efficiencies, that kind of thing … and they are really starting to get on board.
“Some of the local governments are our best publishers. Gold Coast City council, for example, puts up daily updates to their road closure information so that people can do planning around road closures in that city.”Read more: Turnbull talks challenges with open data in government
At the heart of the open data movement in Australia is the technologists or the people who are able to create something out of it, Waugh said.
“In terms of economic growth, and opportunities for local competitiveness, our technical community is one of our best assets. It is usually under-appreciated, under-utilised. Too often we see startup success as being to either move to Silicon Valley or to sell to Google.
“But startup success in Australia should really be about Australians being able to be awesome and successful in their own country. I think competitions like GovHack help showcase our community.”
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