Showing us a better way

November 17, 2008 at 10:18 pm 1 comment

The UK Government’s competition Show Us a Better Way is living up to its name. The competition is run by the Power of Information Taskforce.

The page About This Competition describes it eloquently:

“The government produces masses of information on what is happening around the UK. Information on crime, on health, on education. However, this information is often hidden away in obscure publications or odd corners of websites. Data tucked away like this isn’t of use to the ultimate owner of that information YOU.”

Refreshingly, the government goes on to say, “We’re confident that you’ll have more and better ideas than we ever will.

The Guardian newspaper, which has been campaigning for freeing up government data since 2006, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the competition. With a decent prize pool of £80,000, there has been plenty of interest with over 450 people entering the contest.

In addition to five ideas that need further work and four prototypes that are already running, the judges have announced the five ideas that will be built:
• Can I Recycle It? : recycling information based on post code
• UK Cycling : planning cycling routes
• Catchment Areas : boundaries of school catchment areas
• Location of Postboxes : nearest one to wherever you are
• LooFinder : a mobile texting or website for the nearest public toilet

The first of these, Can I Recycle It, was the overall winner.

A US-equivalent competition, Apps for Democracy, run by the District of Columbia has pulled in 47 submissions over the 30 days it ran.

Clearly, the idea has international appeal for governments. For New Zealand, there are some key messages:

1. While there are already some very good examples of government agencies freeing up their data, such as Statistics NZ’s, Making More Information Freely Available, doing more can unleash much greater creativity. People will themselves work out what problems to solve, where the opportunities are, and ways to add social and/or economic value.

2. The five ideas that emerged winners are all based on geospatial data. Perhaps this reflects the attractiveness of visualisation and the growing popularity of Google Maps. Geospatial data should therefore get priority attention.

3. Governments aren’t typically associated with competitions and cash prizes but, handled right, they could potentially be a viable way to stimulate interest. And, it’s a great way for people to know what data (including formats) the government already makes available.

4. However, even the success of Show Us a Better Way doesn’t imply that all the underlying issues have been resolved. For example, about the time the winners were announced, the Ordinance Survey (which owns all of UK’s mapping data) sent a reminder that its data was free for non-commercial use only. Worse, it ruled out letting people use its data with Google Maps due to licensing issues. This may stall all the five winning ideas. It’s a reminder that licensing, copyright, and pricing all need to be addressed before data is truly free.

5. Also, there is a need to figure out what ‘free’ actually is. Is it the UK-style freely available or the US-style free of cost?

6. This is also a reminder of the non-rival nature of data and information, i.e. one person’s use doesn’t stop others from also using the same data and information for the same or different purpose. Freeing up data can therefore have a multiplier effect since the marginal benefit of providing an extra unit is the sum of the marginal benefits received by each of the individual users.

To go back to the beginning, the Power of Information review highlighted how “The cost-benefit calculations that historically underpinned what information is collected, who can use it, and how it is paid for are rapidly becoming outdated.”

And that raises some opportunities and challenges that New Zealand needs to seize.

[Original post at http://blog.e.govt.nz/index.php/2008/11/17/showing-us-a-better-way/]

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Entry filed under: government, UK, USA, Web_2.0.

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