Slow progress on Government's open data effort

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Slow progress on Government's open data effort
John McMillan, Australian Information Commissioner

Restrictive licensing of datasets undermines open data pledge.

Australia's Information Commissioner has described the Government's progress on open data as patchy and "transitional", some three years after the Federal Government’s declaration of open government.

Launching a report into open data in Canberra on Friday, Information Commissioner John McMillan said many agencies were embracing an open access and pro-active disclosure culture. The report included responses from over 190 agencies.

But he nonetheless found evidence of many obstacles that worked against efforts to make Government information and data discoverable and useable, to move to a default position of open access to information and to have sufficient resources for robust information asset management. lacking

Examples of shortcomings included the parlous state of the web site that makes government data accessible to the public.

While 56 percent of agencies used to distribute their datasets, several reported deficiencies in the site.

Datasets need to be uploaded and updated manually – an exercise that is time and labour intensive , particularly for agencies that have large numbers of datasets.

At present there is no automated entry of metadata. Nor are there transparent standards for metadata (although the site does require the entry of mandatory minimum metadata). Information assets published on thus suffer from being inconsistent, compromising searchability and discoverability.

Moreover lacked functions and features that are displayed by other government data repositories. For example, its search function does not use the full range of metadata attached to uploaded information assets, and does not enable users to filter searches by tags or categories.

Open licensing of datasets still not the default

Even when a dataset might be discoverable, the report revealed two thirds of agencies (65 percent)  were “yet to adopt a default position of open licensing”. The Government had committed to offering clear reuse rights (Open PSI Principle 6).

A low take-up of open licensing will inhibit the optimal reuse of the data sets, and in turn the policy of open data, the report concluded.

A cultural shift is required, it said. It requires both agency leaders to champion the effort and for agency staff to be equipped to "assess and apply the licensing requirements of the intellectual property (IP) Principles and Manual.”

McMillan’s report suggested that there was a chilling effect in the absence of a clear statement of government policy in support of this licensing change.

While IP Principles state that ‘public sector information should be licensed by agencies under the Creative Commons BY standard as the default' (Principle 11b), that message was clouded by competing Principles in the Attorney-General’s Manual, which states a preference for commercialisation licences other than Creative Commons.

Ministers remain “key barriers” to new data releases

Helen Owens, general manager of the Office of Spatial Policy, said there were some successes to report - especially in the field of spatial data.

For example Geoscience Australia plans to launch the Australian Spatial Data Directory on the web next month.

The optical geospatial radar and elevation panel (OGRE)’s holdings of some terabytes of data  covering imagery data, optical data, radar data, elevation data is freely available on the Geoscience website.

Everything that is purchased through the OGRE panel will be available on a multi-use basis, she said.

Geosciences Australia plans also to release all of their Landsat imagery data archive in March.

“One of the key barriers is convincing Ministers to spend money on data," she said. "...and convincing Ministers that data is a strategic asset that needs to be managed and coordinated centrally.

“We are having those conversations as high up as we can. But getting cognisance can be difficult. We hope [assistance] will come out through our colleagues in the policy environment in the Australian Government.”

She reported partial progress in getting PSMA Australia to release its address data.

She noted there were a couple of “road blocks” in the last couple of months. PSMA relies on licensing its data to a select group of clients such as NBN and ASIC for a fee.

"I have confidence that we can reach an agreement with PSMA and the various jurisdictions on making address data a free and open access product for everyone to use,” she said.

"It’s not quite a success. But I am calling it that. If you say it enough, it will happen, right?"

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