Date:
17 February 2022
Author:
Emil Jeyaratnam

Salsa Digital has championed – and played an active role in – Australia’s open data movement over a number of years. We have worked with governments across Australia to develop and support open data platforms, strategies and value realisation from public data. 

To assist and inspire Salsa’s continuing open data journey, we invited Pia Andrews to run a series of internal workshops on open data and digital channels. Pia has extensive experience with open data, open government and digital transformation. She is the former Director of Gov 2.0 and head of data.gov.au, Executive Director of Digital Government and Data, Insights and Transformation (NSW), and most recently was the Special Advisor, Digital And Client Data Workstream Lead in Canada.

Pia’s workshop covered a variety of topics, starting with a brief history of open data in Australia, the policies and frameworks needed for creating successful open data ecosystems, and the challenges and opportunities open data presents governments and society. Pia concluded with a technical overview of tried and proven open data architectures that necessarily intersect with, influence and leverage broader public data architectures.

Open data in Australia

The momentum for open data in Australia – and what eventually became data.gov.au – can be traced back to the Gov 2.0 taskforce in 2009, which in turn was influenced by the UK's Power of Information Task Force (2008-09). Both emphasised the need to open up, leverage and take advantage of government data as an asset.

“When you have more data available about your policies, about the implementation, the success of the implementation, and the lessons learned from the problems of that implementation, you get a more informed public, you get more public ‘buy-in’ and engagement with public policy.”

Pia used data.gov.au as the backbone to step through the evolution of open data in Australia, and focused on the challenges and barriers the data.gov.au team and the departments faced in opening up government data.

“One of the challenges we had, and one of the challenges you will see today when you talk to most departments about open data, is it’s often considered a ‘nice to have’, above and beyond their business as usual activities. This creates a challenge in allocating increasingly scarce resources.”

Back in 2012 when Pia’s team was trying to grow data.gov.au, despite acknowledging the potential economic and accountability benefits of open data as a whole, many departments did not have their own imperative to publish open data. The departments often had too much to do, with limited capacity and budget. So the team focused on identifying the benefits to the public sector itself as an enabler to creating sustainable publishing practises, and realising benefits to the broader community. The team focused on areas where the benefits equated to actual time and cost savings for departments, creating a natural incentive to invest in open data publishing as part of BAU.

Come for the efficiencies

There were many examples of the efficiencies of proactively publishing commonly requested datasets, or datasets needed for service delivery.

Service delivery use case

One department needed to build a mobile app for consumers to compare the energy efficiency rating of all devices sold in Australia. They were quoted an amount to build an API, but data.gov.au had been built to produce a reliable API automatically, so by publishing the data openly, the department initially saved money by not having to build and maintain an API.

Efficiency use cases

The Australian Tax Office (ATO) identified that they were getting more and more requests for data, especially from journalists. ATO staff would have to process the request, gather the data and provide it to the journalist. If they received a similar request for the same dataset, they would have to repeat the process. But by publishing the data openly, and providing a download link, anyone could access the data. This reduced the number of similar requests the ATO received and increased the accountability of the journalists.

Another efficiency example involved the Department of Social Services (DSS), which would get hundreds of requests from MPs and senators wanting a breakdown of the social service statistics in their electorate. By proactively publishing this data, they not only reduced their overhead of serving multiple requests, the data was now publicly available for anyone to use. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) used the data to create an interactive map showing the spend by local government area (LGA).

Stay for the innovation

The above examples show the time and cost savings for the public sector of opening up data. But many departments started seeing other tangible benefits they did not initially anticipate. And this resulted in the departments increasing their investments in open data.

“When we could show a department the specific benefit to them – which often in the first instance would be some form of financial benefit or cost saving – they would come for the efficiency but stay for the innovation.”

One of Pia's favourite examples of how open data unlocks innovation relates to the energy ratings data for household appliances, which is now published by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources.

Although the department published data initially to save the cost and hassle of building a bespoke API for their data, one of the unforeseen benefits was how publishing the data helped the entities that were required to provide energy efficiency ratings for the appliances they sold. Before the dataset was made public, the regulated entities did not have access to authoritative and accurate energy ratings data; many were searching for the energy ratings online with search engines, leading to inconsistent results across the retail sector. 

And the API improved efficiency by enabling the automation of processes such as automated printing of energy star ratings for appliances. The open dataset also resulted in a number of innovative apps being developed, where consumers could, for instance, upload their household devices and get recommendations for how to reduce their energy bills with more energy efficient devices.

Salsa Digital’s take

The examples above demonstrate the power and benefits of open data (and open APIs). Making data public creates a consistent, authoritative and reusable data resource that can be used by different government agencies, industry and the public. Not only do government departments save costs and improve efficiencies, opening up data can be a catalyst for innovation.

But the examples also highlight the challenges facing government departments with respect to open data. With limited resources and budgets, departments often view open data as a “nice to have” requirement, not essential for their BAU state. For open data to be better adopted by departments, these challenges and barriers need to be acknowledged and addressed by the various open data agencies, advocates and champions – both from within government and outside.

Salsa strongly believes in the importance and power of open data, and more broadly open government. We want to continue to work with government jurisdictions to open up their data, improve open data platforms and policies, and help Australia to become a data-driven society.

As part of our commitment to helping governments and society more broadly to unlock the benefits of open data, Salsa is launching a quarterly Open Data Practitioners meetup that aims to include both the government and non-government open data community. The meetups will provide an opportunity to share barriers and solutions so that individuals and institutions are not trying to solve the same problems in isolation. More information about the meetups will be available soon.

If you would like to learn more about the meetups, express your interest in participating or provide any input, please reach out to opendata@salsadigital.com.au. And don’t forget to subscribe to our Open Data Insights newsletter to learn about what is happening in the world of open data and to keep informed of upcoming events.