After water, Australian State may open many more public data


Back in December 2009 I wrote about an issue that is still (rightly!) drawing lots of attention in Italy, the so-called “privatization of water”. In that article I explained why, in practice, public or private water management can make very little difference for citizens if all the related data aren’t published online, in real time, with an open license, and noted that Australia wanted to do just that.

A few days ago I saw an announcement that shows how that decision may be just part of a larger, quite promising trend down under: the Government of the Australian State of Victoria has just committed to using Creative Commons as the default licensing system for all its public sector information.

You may be wondering what this means in human language and why it’s so important, but luckily both these things are quite easy to explain. Releasing data about public procedures, contracts and so on with the right Creative Commons license means to give explicit, legal permission to everybody to take all those data for free to study, mix, analyze, comment and republish them as they please.

If we all used computers to watch TV…

Here’s why this is a big deal: only if Public administrations publish all their data online in this way it becomes always legal, fast, cheap and technically easy to build and use “follow the money” search engines.

Everybody could quickly see, for example, who got money from a public contract, who approved it, all the present and past relationships among those people (such as sitting on the boards of the same companies), the percentage of contracts assigned to some firm from each public officer, and so on, and denounce any irregularity.

You could check such things yourself on a normal website, without having a master in Economics or relying on some professional journalist to find and report fishy stuff. To see one way how all this could become quick, easy and even fun to do, just read what would happen if we all used computers to watch TV.

The announcement of the Victorian Government shows that they are also aware of the other benefits, beside transparency, of releasing public data in this way. They are doing it “with the expectation it will lead to increased commercial activity, provide primary data to researchers in a wide range of disciplines, and increase transparency of government in Victoria.”

In other words, if everything goes well, more citizens may be able to make more money. How? Here’s one among thousands of possible examples: if the digital maps your Government created to work for you, with your money, finally become usable for profit without paying (again) for them first, you could start publishing very accurate backpacking or tourist guides.

Of course, announcement are one thing and reality is another. Those I just described are the best possible scenarios, and there are still a million ways to make a good law ineffective.

In this case, this may happen if, after saying “Creative commons is the default licenses, but there are exceptions for restricted materials”, the Government declared “restricted materials” 90% of its data. Still, it’s great to see, among so many deaf ears or ineffective laws about new technologies, a step in what’s definitely the right direction.

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