Credit: Information and Privacy Commission, New South Wales

Credit: Information and Privacy Commission, New South Wales

EXCLUSIVE - Addressing the open data imperative through sound information management

Today governments around the world today are seeking to unleash the power of open government data. They are increasingly aware of the value of the massive volumes of data they hold and continue to add to at a rising pace and they are coming to a common understanding that to unlock the potential of this data, it has to be made open, accessible and usable.

OpenGov had the opportunity to speak to Elizabeth Tydd, Information Commissioner and CEO of the Information and Privacy Commission (IPC), New South Wales (NSW) about the role played by open data in improving government service delivery and building trust in institutions. Commissioner Tydd also explains how information release can benefit from process automation and initiatives taken by IPC NSW towards promoting open data and open government.

Benefits of proactively releasing non-sensitive government information

Delivering better services

In our contemporary environment, governments are challenged in meeting service delivery demands – it needs to do things faster; more responsively and in a more tailored way to achieve better outcomes in a range of services transport and infrastructure; education and health.

By releasing non-sensitive data, Commissioner Tydd explained, the government can partner with the community and private sector business to harness the communities’ ideas for innovation and new service delivery models.

She talked about the TripView app as an example, which creates trip plans for train, bus, ferry, light rail and coach services. It uses open data from Transport for NSW, which leads the development of safe, integrated and efficient transport systems for the people of NSW. The app helps ease congestion and enables people to make informed decisions about transport.

Another example is the FuelCheck app, which uses information from cellular, Wi-Fi, and Global Positioning System (GPS) networks to determine a person’s approximate location and provides real-time information about fuel prices at service stations across NSW. It helps ensure that consumers make an informed choice regarding fuel pricing and also contributes to efficient market behaviour resulting in better outcomes for citizens.

There are also significant efficiencies that can be delivered partnerships between citizens and government, so that service delivery can be more focused and targeted. This facilitates the delivery of services to citizens where they need those services, and in a way that they can most effectively access.

Citizens can better engage with government and hold government accountable – so that government is more efficient and service delivery is more effective.

Building trust

Another key role of open data is to help build trust in government, and institutions generally.

Commissioner Tydd highlighted building public trust and ensuring the provision of good quality public services as contemporary challenges facing governments. In NSW there is an increase in the number of applications in which citizens are asking for non-personal information – they are interested in understanding how government works.

To have a well-functioning democracy in which citizens actively participate and governments are accountable, there is a need to promote openness and transparency.

“We need to consciously and consistently work to elevate trust in Australia. The Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that over the last 3 years Australia is increasing becoming a nation of distrusters. In 2018 our results place us at 40 and Russia at 36. We declined 2 percentage points (the US declined by 9 percentage points),” Commissioner Tydd said.

Rising acknowledgement across the public sector

But there are positive developments. Australia joined the Open Government Partnership in 2016 and signed up to deliver on 15 ambitious commitments to build openness under the inaugural national action plan.  Commissioner Tydd has led the work to develop metrics and report on the use of information access laws in each of Australia’s states and territories. She said that NSW’s results are pleasing but there is still work to be done on release rates.

In general, there is improved awareness of the value of data in the public sector in Australia. It recognises that it is the custodian of a wealth of data and information and that this asset must be harnessed - managed respectfully and applied effectively.

The Data Analytics Centre (DAC) in NSW and recent legislation in South Australia; and Victoria follows the benefits recognition of sound information management and application.  These analytics centres seek to utilise the most recent technical developments to:

  • Manage the large volumes of data including messy data
  • Better manage scalability variables
  • Ensure better accuracy of data
  • Harness better predictive capabilities to deliver better outcomes

Commissioner Tydd also brought up developments at the Commonwealth level, “Likewise, developments in precision medicine at the Commonwealth level seeking to customise health care and at the same time preserve privacy and anonymity will deliver better services to citizens.”

In NSW there is a real commitment to more effective information management. However, Commissioner Tydd added that there are challenges to be overcome. They include outdated technology and legacy information management systems, the tyranny of paper, outdated regulation and inadequate metadata capture and limited search capacity.

“We also need to build the capability to better manage information and a culture of openness – these are increasingly the essential capabilities for public sector employees,” said Commissioner Tydd.

In addition, there is scope for improvement in information management processes through harnessing technological solutions and through the digitisation of suitable processes to better capture; store and access information. 

Facilitating information release through process automation

The modes of information release fall under four categories:

  1. Mandatory release (i.e. release of info under regulatory requirement, e.g. directory info, annual report)
  2. Proactive release (i.e. voluntary release of info that has no reason to be withheld)
  3. Informal release (i.e. release of info in response to a request made without resorting to formal channels)   
  4. Formal release (i.e. release of info in response to a formal application, e.g. Freedom of Information request)    

We asked Commissioner Tydd which of these would benefit most from process automation.

She replied, “All of the information access pathways would benefit from process automation but your question restricts me to one.”

“However, I’d like to nominate 2 as they are so closely linked - Mandatory release and proactive release. In NSW compliance with mandatory release is declining – this is information that is mandated for release and accordingly it lends itself to automation.”

Manual upload or release may not receive priority with scarce resources in both large and small agencies. So, automation serves the dual purposes of open government and efficient application of government resources.

Commissioner Tydd explained that additionally, proactive release provides a real opportunity to build systems that by design release information that can safely and securely be released and do so without again the legacy of unnecessary application of resources at a later stage in the process of managing information and responsibilities generally.

Steps taken by IPC NSW to promote Open Data and apply technology to better Open Government

“In NSW we are fortunate enough to have a tranche two or more contemporary legislative model that seeks to push information out to citizens and we should maximise that opportunity to open government; build trust; harness ideas and deliver better government services,” Commissioner Tydd said.

When asked about the agency’s initiatives in the area of open data, she replied, “The agency dashboard represents the IPC’s commitment to Open Data and is part of the IPC’s proactive release program.”

The Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA Act) was established to provide an open and transparent process for giving the public access to information held by NSW public sector agencies and to encourage the proactive release of government information.

The GIPA dashboard provides accessible data for the public, individual agencies and for all sectors. By making this data more accessible, the public and agencies can see how the GIPA Act is working for them against the eight key performance measures reported upon each year since 2014.

Prior to the publication of the dashboard, agency-level GIPA data was publicly available through the annual Report on the operation of the GIPA Act, each agency’s annual report, on the IPC’s website and via the NSW government’s data website

The data is drawn from the GIPA Tool developed by the IPC as a cloud-based case management tool for agencies and available free of charge. It is used by agencies to report their GIPA Act activities and comprises reports submissions from over 230 agencies across NSW.

The dashboard, which incorporates contemporary data visualisation tools, will go live in March 2018. It will be available on the IPC website

Commissioner Tydd listed several benefits on this approach including a greater understanding by agencies and the community of the GIPA operations of agencies and improved visibility and self-assessment of performance and therefore, increasing compliance by agencies with their GIPA Act obligations.

It would also lead to improved efficiency through agencies comparing their performance and seeking performance improvement strategies from peers, greater collaboration between agencies on areas of common interest, such as timeliness, and improved transparency to the community and stakeholders, including Parliament.

Finally, this approach leads to improved and streamlined ability for agencies to report to their stakeholders and demonstrate compliance and performance outcomes and it also enhances engagement opportunities for the community.

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