Government data belongs to us

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Government data belongs to us

[Blog post] Australians have a right to know how we are governed.

Today we use the internet so often that we’re well past the point in which we consciously examine its impact on our personal lives and our work.

One of the things we don't reflect on enough is that the internet has also changed how we are governed.  

Government has been as affected by shifts in technology as much as our personal lives and private companies – information is mobile, easily accessible and more transparent. Just as our banks offer online banking, our government is in the nascent stages of offering online government.  

Data.gov.au is a very positive example – a site dedicated to providing the public data that is collected by the government. It offers APIs, real-time feeds and other sets of information that are produced in the normal course of government. It is released because the government is beginning to realise we have a right to access the data our tax dollars pay for. The success of last week's GovHack event illustrated how powerful access to the data can be.

Freedom of Information legislation aims to deliver on the same promise.

There are also private projects that aim to give these projects a shot in the arm. Right To Know, for example, streamlines the process of accessing information under the Freedom of Information Act. It provides a running log of correspondence between the public that requests data and the departments processing those requests, as well as some mentorship on how to use the rights provided to the electorate under the act. 

Most importantly, Right to Know provides publicity and transparency for the information that the process reveals.  

Right to Know is supported by Transparency International, Electronic Frontiers Australia, Open Forum, the Open Knowledge Foundation and a host of other organisations and individuals. 

Their support is premised on the fact that government data isn’t the same as personally identifiable information from individuals or market sensitive information from companies that have their own reasons for secrecy. The information produced in the course of governance is bought and paid for by tax dollars, and belongs to the taxpayer. Government information wants to be free.

It can sometimes take some WD40 and a really strong pull to free the information. Right To Know routinely reveals circumstances where government bodies assert they need to continue to conceal democracy. 

Data.gov.au frequently contains partial data sets or data which is in forms that are awkward to re-use. It is now emerging that the most rusted-on secrecy regarding government information takes the form of source code.

The fact source code for programs can be compiled into an app isn't really relevant for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, but is for our moral right to see the cards that government plays for us. 

The Senate recently affirmed this principle by ordering the Australian Electoral Commission to disclose the source of the software that counts Senate preferences, after the AEC furrowed its collective brow and dug its heels in against Tasmanian lawyer and former programmer Michael Cordover.  

The AEC are determined; the refusal of the original FOI on various competition and trade secrets grounds (along with the attempt to declare him a "vexatious applicant", FOI-speak for a nuisance) cornered Cordover into crowd funding the cost to continue the battle in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. 

Requests can ordinarily be appealed more cost effectively by approaching the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, but that office is currently waiting out death row before it is wound up under the Abbott budget's cost-cutting measures.  

The AEC continue to fight tooth and nail – yesterday it was revealed they are refusing to comply with the Senate order with vague excuses of hackers and cybersecurity.

It is grim. It is not grim because there is a genuine threat of hackers, it is grim because this source code was central to the 2013 West Australian Senate election controversy – a matter crucial to our democracy.  Reasonable people have more to fear from opaque government than they do campfire stories of election hackers offered in a last stand against transparency.

While government information should be and must be free, the AEC has misunderstood its custodianship of information technology that governs us and was determined to consider it a secret to be kept from the public.

This fight between the public that is governed with technology and the government who would prefer to wield technology in confidential secrecy will only continue to grow. At the same time our reliance on technology grows, the extent to which government operations fall under our right to know will grow.  

MyGov, the nascent Department of Human Services website, brings together a range of contact points between the government and the governed into a single web portal. It is another example of information to which the FOI act applies.  

I have made a request to the Department of Human Services for the code for this site so that I can examine it and understand how we are governed by Centrelink, the Australian Tax Office, Medicare, Child Support, Veterans Affairs and the NDIS.  At the time of writing I am still waiting for an acknowledgement of that request.  

I hope that my experience is more positive than Cordover's. I hope it is more successful than my 2012 FOI, which aimed to understand how the previous Australian Government spent $100,000 dollars of taxpayer funding on a "Cybersafety Help Button" which was rejected from the iOS App Store because its mere function of showing a government website was too trivial to be considered a discrete app with commercial value.  (In that circumstance, the department revealed the correspondence between outsourced developers despairing at the project, but asserted that the source code for the application mysteriously didn't exist.)

We have a right to information.  We have a right to transparency in government.  As government and information become so intertwined that we enter the post-reflection era where they are for all intents and purposes the same thing, our democracy exists within the boundaries of our right to know about it.  

This fight needs to be resolved efficiently and in the favour of the electorate.  

Government bodies need to review the attitude they bring to this information demand and understand whether the public interest and our democracy is served by classifying source code as not-information, classifying members of the public as vexatious for daring to ask to see government, and declaring that authority works better in secrecy. 

The alternative is information being considered the confidential property of the government, a principle which is incompatible with our liberal democracy and bears a much closer resemblance to the worst examples of government elsewhere around the world.

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Geordie Guy
Geordie is a Sydney based technology professional and politics nerd. He's an infrastructure lead for a financial services company and has worked tech roles with vendors, private business and government. When not building systems, he’s worked with and for civil liberties organisations, political parties and digital policy communities.
Read more from this blog: The Cable Guy

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