Australian Government data to be 'open by default'

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Australian Government data to be 'open by default'
Professor John McMillan, Australian Information Commissioner

But new rules are still not binding on agencies.

Australia's Information Commissioner, John McMillan, will today unveil eight new rules for Federal agencies to adhere to when considering the publication of government data.

Known as the Principles on open public sector information, the rules promote the default position that the public should have open access to government information.

“These principles set out the central values of open public sector information – that it be freely available, easily discoverable, understandable, machine-readable and reusable,” McMillan said.

Based on an earlier set of ten draft principles issued in November last year, the riules are not binding in law and there are few sanctions for non-compliance.

“We have received comments that the Principles should have been more prescriptive and robust. The major reason we did not do that is because we are the newest agency in a large field,” McMillan told iTnews.

One of McMillan's few enforcement options will be via the Freedom of Information Act, under which his office is required to monitor how each agency responds to requirements to publish information. (See the Information Publication Scheme which commenced on 1 May, 2011.)

“This provides an excellent opportunity to ask them whether they are aware of observing these standards,” he said.

McMillan said agency cooperation with IPS requirements had been "excellent."

His office’s initial survey of 30 agencies revealed that 29 had adopted the OAIC template.

“I expect we’ll get the same cooperation with these principles,” McMillan said.

McMillan said he anticipates a gradual transformation over the next few months as his office takes a lead role in promoting open and reusable public sector information.

Though the majority of comments on the earlier draft were from the Federal and State public sector agencies, Google, AIIA and members of the public offered substantive comments on various aspects.

“We considered them all and they are strongly reflected in the style of the new principles,” McMillan said.

“Nobody questioned the thrust of the principles. Most of the discussion was about definition and structure.”

McMillan said the principle which caused the most concern was the first one – that open access to information should be the default position.

“There was a lot of debate about the breadth of the concept of public sector information and whether phrases like machine-readable was the best one,” he said.

“Also we had phrases such as “unless there were compelling reasons to the contrary, the information should be open."

McMillan tightened these up by moving that detail to the other principles.

“We used that first principle to explain a little more clearly that we are using publication as an important means of achieving open government.”

The principles in brief:

  1. Open access to information  – a default position,
  2. Engaging the community,
  3. Effective information governance,
  4. Robust information asset management,
  5. Discoverable and useable information,
  6. Clear reuse rights,
  7. Appropriate charging for access, 
  8. Transparent enquiry and complaints processes.

Check out the the Principles in Full

The Principles in full

The Principles are not otherwise binding on agencies, and operate alongside legal requirements about information management that are spelt out in the FOI Act, Privacy Act 1988, Archives Act 1983 and other legislation and the general law.

 Principle 1: Open access to information – a default position Information held by Australian Government agencies is a valuable national resource.

  • If there is no legal need to protect the information it should be open to public access.
  • Information publication enhances public access.
  • Agencies should use information technology to disseminate public sector information, applying a presumption of openness and adopting a proactive publication stance.

Principle 2: Engaging the community Australian Government policy requires agencies to engage the community online in policy design and service delivery.

This should apply to agency information publication practices. Agencies should:

  • consult the community in deciding what information to publish and about agency publication practices
  • welcome community feedback about the quality, completeness, usefulness and accuracy of published information
  • respond promptly to comments received from the community and to requests for information
  • employ Web 2.0 tools to support community consultation.

Principle 3: Effective information governance Australian Government agencies should manage information as a core strategic asset.

  • A senior executive ‘information champion’ or knowledge officer in the agency should be responsible for information management and governance, including:
  • providing leadership on agency compliance with the Information Publication Scheme and Disclosure Log
  • ensuring agency compliance with legislative and policy requirements on information management and publication
  • managing agency information to ensure its integrity, security and accessibility
  • instigating strategic planning on information resource management
  • ensuring community consultation on agency information policy and publication practices.

The senior officer should be supported by an information governance body that may include people from outside the agency.

Principle 4: Robust information asset management Effective information management requires agencies to:

  • maintain an asset inventory or register of the agency's information
  • identify the custodian of each information holding and the responsibilities of that officer
  • train staff in information management
  • establish clear procedures and lines of authority for decisions on information publication and release
  • decide if information should be prepared for publication at the time it is created and the form of publication
  • document known limitations on data quality
  • identify data that must be managed in accordance with legislative and legal requirements, including requirements relating to data security and protection of personal information, intellectual property, business confidentiality and legal professional privilege
  • protect information against inappropriate or unauthorised use, access or disclosure  
  • preserve information for an appropriate period of time based on sound archival practices.

Principle 5: Discoverable and useable information The economic and social value of public sector information can be enhanced by publication and information sharing. 

This requires that information can easily be discovered and used by the community and other stakeholders.

To support this objective agencies should:  

  • publish an up to date information asset register  
  • ensure that information published online is in an open and standards-based format and is machine-readable
  • attach high quality metadata to information so that it can be easily located and linked to similar information using standard web search applications
  • publish information in accordance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2 (WCAG 2.0) endorsed by the Australian Government in November 2009.

Principle 6: Clear reuse rights The economic and social value of public sector information is enhanced when it is made available for reuse on open licensing terms.

The Guidelines on Licensing Public Sector Information for Australian Government Agencies require agencies to decide licensing conditions when publishing information online.

The default condition should be the Creative Commons BY standard, as recommended in the Intellectual Property Principles for Australian Government Agencies,that apply to agencies subject to the Financial and Management Accountability Act 1997.

Additional guidance on selecting an appropriate licence is given in the Australian Government Open Access and Licensing Framework (AUSGOAL).

Principle 7: Appropriate charging for access The FOI Act requires agencies to facilitate public access to information at the lowest reasonable cost.

This principle applies when information is provided upon request or is published by an agency.

Other Acts also authorise charges for specific documents or information access.

Agencies can reduce the cost of public access by publishing information online, especially information that is routinely sought by the public.

Charges that may be imposed by an agency for providing access should be clearly explained in an agency policy that is published and regularly reviewed.

 Principle 8: Transparent enquiry and complaints processes Agency decision making about information publication should be transparent.

This can be supported, within the agency's information governance framework, by an enquiry and complaints procedure for the public to raise issues about agency publication and access decisions.

The procedure should be published, explain how enquiries and complaints will be handled, set timeframes for responding, identify possible remedies and complaint outcomes, and require that written reasons be provided in complaint resolution.

For more information visit the OAIC website .

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