Saturday, 26 January 2013

Freedom, Openness and Datasets: An Australia Day View

Today, January 26th is Australia Day. This means everyone is having a day off work, and in this ‘free’ time we can reflect how lucky we are to live in our nation and celebrate this. The benefits and privileges of living in Australia are summed up by always having a sense of freedom and openness. This comes not just from the physical landscape, the big wide open red desert spaces and blue sky, but in the day to day experience of living, and the rights Australians have. 

I was very interested to read some new research last week which set out to rank countries on their level of ‘Freedom’ and give them a score out of ten. The research is published in the book ‘Towards a Worldwide Index of Human Freedom’, which was released on 8 January 2013 by the Fraser Institute. Chapter 3 by Ian Vásquez and Tanja Štumberger gives An Index of Freedom in the World’. Freedom is looked at in four areas:  Security and Safety; Freedom of Movement; Freedom of Expression; and Relationship Freedoms. The authors say:

 “We have tried to capture the degree to which people are free to enjoy the major civil liberties—freedom of speech, religion, and association and assembly—in each country in our survey. In addition, we include indicators of crime and violence, freedom of movement, and legal discrimination against homosexuals. We also include six variables pertaining to women’s freedom that are found in various categories of the index”.

The categories in detail are:

I. Security and safety

A. Government’s threat to a person

1. Extrajudicial killings

2. Torture

3. Political imprisonment

4. Disappearances

B. Society’s threat to a person

1. Intensity of violent conflicts

2. Level of organized conflict (internal)

3. Female genital mutilation

4. Son preference

5. Homicide

6. Human trafficking

7. Sexual violence

8. Assault

9. Level of perceived criminality

C. Threat to private property

1. Theft

2. Burglary

3. Inheritance

D. Threat to foreigners

II. Movement

A. Forcibly displaced populations

B. Freedom of foreign movement

C. Freedom of domestic movement

D. Women’s freedom of movement

III. Expression

A. Press killings

B. Freedom of speech

C. Laws and regulations that influence media content

D. Political pressures and controls on media content

E. Dress code in public

IV. Relationship freedoms

A. Freedom of assembly and association

B. Parental authority

C. Government restrictions on religion

D. Social hostility toward religion

E. Male-to-male relationships

F. Female-to-female relationships

G. Age of consent for homosexual couples

H. Adoption by homosexuals

The country which has the best freedom in the world and comes top in the Freedom Index is New Zealand. Australia comes 4th and the UK 18th out of 123. The table below shows the top countries. (Scores out of 10)

I feel lucky to have lived in three of the top ranked countries. Based on my own experience I think the rankings of New Zealand, Australia and UK is right.

The countries which lack freedom and are bottom are Zimbabwe 123rd; Burma/Myanmar 122nd; Pakistan 121st; Sri-Lanka 120th; and Syria 119th. We feel for their citizens who often feature in our TV news. The extract of bottom countries is below:

The report is fascinating and I suggest you read it. You might be wondering why I think this study has any relevance for librarians or archivists. Being a librarian I most commonly associate Freedom with ‘Freedom and Openness of Information’.  I was originally reading the study to see how Freedom of Information or Open Government had been scored and ranked. However this was not included in the study, perhaps because it wasn’t thought of it, or it was simply too hard.

It follows that if a country is very free then a lot more information will be generated both commercially and by the Government. This is likely to be in the public sphere at time of creation and then remain in the public sphere when it gets passed on/purchased/made accessible by National Archives, Libraries and Research Institutions. 

If information is not publicly accessible then countries with a high Freedom Index score have Freedom of Information (FOI) Acts. This enables members of the public to request to see information. USA was the first country to have a FOI in 1966. Australia and New Zealand followed in 1982, and the UK finally launched FOI in 2000.

Most of the top ranked countries in the Freedom Index are involved in a movement known as ‘Open Government’ which started in about 2009 and basically builds on the Freedom of Information Act principles. Open Government aims to make a concerted effort to release reports, research, statistics and data sets into the public domain and be transparent; to involve the citizens of the country in decision making based on the fact they would have equal access to the same information as policy decision makers; AND for citizens to help with information creation, collation, dissemination and interpretation.

In June 2009 the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the Internet) would work with the UK Government to help make data more open and accessible on the Web in the UK, building on the work of the Power of Information Task Force.

On his first day in Office in January 2009 Barack Obama issued a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, instructing the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue an Open Government Directive, which would direct agencies to take specific actions regarding transparency, participation, and collaboration.

In Australia in 2009 the Government 2.0 Taskforce recommended that Australia should have an Open Government. The Australian Declaration of Open Government was made in 2010.

At this time I had a particular interest in the Australian Declaration because it was relevant to me in my day to day work at the National Library of Australia. It said among other things:

“Collaboration with citizens is to be enabled and encouraged. Agencies are to reduce barriers to online engagement, undertake social networking, crowd sourcing and online collaboration projects and support online engagement by employees…”

In 2011 the New Zealand Government made a Declaration of OpenGovernment.

After these dramatic declarations by the USA, Australia and New Zealand President Obama took little time to try and influence the world. In September 2011 he formed the ‘Open Government Partnership’ (OGP) and 8 governments joined: Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, and United States (but not Australia or New Zealand).  To become a member of the OGP, participating countries must do three things:

·         embrace an agreed high-level Open Government Declaration

·         deliver a concrete action plan, developed with public consultation

·         commit to independent reporting on their progress going forward

At last check 60 countries have now joined with 47 having delivered action plans and 13 working on them. However Australia and New Zealand are not members.  Obviously it is much easier said than done to actually implement Open Government. Pia Waugh, Australian expert on Open Government has given many talks on Open Government and to read some more about the challenges and what it really means check out her 2011 blog post ‘OpenGovernment: What is it really?

The UK is notably now amending its Freedom of Information Act in consultation with the public, to take into account the opening up of data sets.  More info

Perhaps the Freedom Index had trouble ranking Open Government, so how would you do it?
Interestingly last week Craig Thomler reported in a blog post that he had attempted to rank countries by comparing the number of open data sets they had released through their national government open data sites.  He has relied on the ‘open data’ provided on the USA Open Data site to do this and notes that the results are a bit dubious. lists 41 countries as having open data websites, out of almost 200 countries.

Government Open Data sites include:

· (USA)

· (UK)

·         Data NZ

·         Data (Australia)

The ranking results of countries providing Open Data via Government Data Sites in January 2013 are:

1. US (378,529 data sets)

2. France (353,226)

3. Canada (273,052)

4. Denmark (23,361)

5. United Kingdom (8,957)

6. Singapore (7,754)

7. South Korea (6,460)

8. Netherlands (5,193)

9. New Zealand (2,265)

10. Estonia (1,655)

11. Australia (1,124)

Is this really right that Australia is 11th? Perhaps not, because this is not the big picture.  It is wrong to assume that all data sets are created by Government (although of course a lot are).  Many more are created by researchers in academia and by commercial companies.  Geospatial and mapping data is a good example of this. For example if I was looking for Open Data Sets in Australia there are at least
8 portals I know of where I could look. Also many more individual sites that offer their own data sets. The portal sites listed below either publicly list or actually make available Australian data sets.
Australian Data Set Portals
Number of data sets included as at 26 January 2013
53,000:  National Library of Australia Trove Service, mostly from the University sector

31,000:  Research Data Australia, from the Academic and Research sector

1,124:    Data (Department of Finance), from Federal Government Agencies.

466:      Atlas of Living Australia, from Research Institutes

250:, from State Government Departments

167:      Data.vic Victoria, from State Government Departments
78:, from State Government Departments

72:      DataACT, from State Government Departments

This takes the total figure of Australian open data sets to between 50,000 - 94,000 depending on the duplication, if any, between these sites, and possibly moves us up to fourth position in the rankings.  Duplication… that makes me want to put my librarian hat on again.  Wouldn’t it be good if the Australian Government took on the bigger challenge and picture for data sets by utilising the knowledge and delivery services of the National Library and National Archives of Australia. they could develop an open data set portal that co-ordinated, listed, delivered and was searchable for ALL Australian data sets, rather than each sector (Government, Research Institutes, Commercial, Academic, Libraries, Archives) attempting to develop its own portal.  This would much better serve the citizens of Australia who want to find, access and use the data sets. At the end of the day the main point of the Open Government movement is about trying to better help, inform, engage and involve our citizens. Since both the National Library and National Archives of Australia are not only part of the Government, but also professional organisations that have a mandate to manage information then they have a key leadership role in Open Government and Open Data in particular.  It will be very interesting to see how this area develops over the next couple of years for them.

This evening the televised 5 minute 2013 Australia Day Address from the Governor-General talked about the importance of looking for answers to big questions, saying the internet is often our first stop. She spoke about significant research and how changes in technology and access to information can assist with ideas and innovation which often translates into economic growth. Everything she said applied to opening up data sets.

The take home messages for Australian and New Zealand Librarians and Archivists about the implications of being up there in the top of the Freedom Index and Open Government rankings are that it means:

·         Our digital collections will grow rapidly with this explosion of open and free digital data. 

·         We must further develop our search and discovery and delivery platforms to keep up with Google and ensure we maintain our relevance in digital society.

·         We need to take a lead in the Open Data movement – most especially by being involved in development of open data portals.

·         We must campaign for Digital Legal Deposit and make it a reality for Australia as it is in New Zealand, to help Libraries and Archives collect published Digital Material from the Commercial and Government sectors at point of creation.

·         Libraries and Archives are founded on freedom of information, equal access and openness; this is our tour de force.

Happy Australia Day!

Useful Extra Reading:

UK Government- Open Data White Paper: Unleashing the Potential, June 2012