Greg Barila

Journalist. Editor. Social Media specialist.

Let's open the floodgates on public data

Former Adelaide Thinker-in-Residence John McTiernan released made several recommendations to make public data more open and more accessible in a report to the SA Government. Photo: News Corp. Australia.
HAS crime in your suburb gone up or down in the past 12 months?
How many dangerous dogs did your council register in the past financial year?
What’s the water quality like where you live?
How many passengers ride our public transport system every day?
The truth is out there ... but not in any kind of ethereal X-Files way.
The answers to all these questions, and thousands more, are tucked away in so many filing cabinets, desk drawers and manila folders in Vic Square and Salisbury, Mt Gambier and Wallaroo.
They are locked away in PDFs, spreadsheets and photo archives — anywhere the tentacles of government reach or every nook and cranny of our lives.
Our politicians, department chiefs and bureaucrats hold the filing cabinet keys and computer passwords for these vast troves of information, but the data isn’t theirs. It’s mine, and yours.
And assuming you get about your business as a decent, law-abiding South Australian, access to this information isn’t really much in question. If you want it, it’s your right.
For decades, newspapers like this one have been instrumental in giving you access to information you need, through direct relationships with public agencies and, when they found the information harder to dislodge with the help of that legislative crowbar, through the Freedom of Information process.
FOI remains an important lever that journalists, or any member of the public for that matter, can pull to convince government departments to release information in the public interest.
But in recent years, governments in the UK, US and now here, have finally, thankfully, started to crack open their filing cabinets and storage rooms and begin publishing public information, in the public interest, as part of a broad movement known as “Open Data”.
David Cameron made it his first order of business as PM and one of his senior policy advisers at the time has been often quoted for declaring, “We will unleash a tsunami of data”.
The ripples of that tsunami are being felt here.
In 2012, former Adelaide Thinker in Residence, and later, chief spin doctor for Julia Gillard, John McTernan, released a report calling on the State Government to adopt a new “open data policy”. This involved setting up a central body tasked with making raw data available to the public.
The Government has gone some way to adopting the 20 recommendations in the report.
In 2012, it set up the open-data portal data.sa.gov.au to publish data on everything from crime and education to health and council services, and while not an exhaustive store of data (some of the datasets are out of date or incomplete), it is, at least, a start.
In 2013, for the first time, the Government ran the open data competition, Unleashed Adelaide , which gives local web developers the chance to turn datasets into socially useful apps and products.
It is an interesting and innovative program that is generating smart ideas for public good and the Government deserves credit for getting behind it.
There may be sound economic reasons why South Australia should pursue this kind of innovation, and if any state needs good ideas right now, it’s ours.
Local companies like Shifty Jelly have put Adelaide on the map — they’re the guys who took info from Bureau of Meteorology and turned it into the hugely popular app, Pocket Weather Australia.
Other local developers have produced highly successful public transport apps — but only when the department yielded the data. Public data is your data.
And when the government finally opens the floodgates, there’ll be no telling what good we can do.
*News Corp. is involved in Unleashed Adelaide 2014 as a data supplier.