Reading is a special pleasure for me. I have always loved books. Thousands line our walls,
scores fill the bedroom, and there are always a couple piled on the bedside table. While I
have struggled with the wilful suspension of disbelief required to watch a play, a book can
absorb me in an instant. I’d like to say my tastes are eclectic – because it sounds so dignified
– but, if the truth be known, I tend to survive on a diet of history, politics, science fiction and,
especially, the American Civil War.
It should come as no surprise then that I’ve also got a soft spot for libraries and librarians. In
my first year at high school, I was a member of three libraries and used to borrow from each
of them every Friday. While I still have every book I have ever bought, for a long time, I
couldn’t afford to buy a lot and thus, even into my 40s, the local library was important to me.
So, when offered the chance to speak to a group of librarians, I was more than willing. I
figured that, even in a small way, I’d be able to pay back some of what has been given to me.
In doing so though, I’m not sure that, on the face of it, my message is what you expect to hear
– but more of that later.
In July last year, the then Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Lindsay Tanner, announced
the Australian Government’s Declaration of Open Government. The Declaration was an
outcome of the Government’s response to the report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce that it
had established in June 2009. The report, entitled “Engage: Getting on with Government
2.0”, covered a wide range of Web 2.0 matters.
For clarity, let me briefly explain the difference between Web 1.0 and 2.0. Web 1.0 was
about publishing information – mostly static and often in voluminous web sites, pages and
pages of information, largely converted directly from previous brochures and similar
documents. The result was an online library of information but devoid of most of the features
that distinguish a good library – no indexing by subjects, no ready distinction between fact
and fiction, lack of proper referencing – and certainly no librarians. Searchable it was and
remains but through the use of text searching and without the benefits of the recognition of
authority or reputation.
Web 2.0 does not necessarily address these shortcomings but it introduces new features –
chiefly collaboration. Through Web 2.0, governments can become involved in the three
characteristics outlined in the Declaration – informing, engaging and participating with
people, communities and businesses. In this discussion, I will be concentrating on the aspects
of informing, declared as “strengthening citizen’s rights of access to information, establishing
a pro-disclosure culture across Australian Government agencies including through online
innovation, and making government information more accessible and usable”.
The Government’s commitment to informing is demonstrated by the passage of legislation
reforming the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and by establishing the Office of the
Australian Information Commissioner. As the OAIC is represented at the conference by the
FOI Commissioner, it would be presumptuous of me to dwell on this detail. Rather, I will
confine my remarks to the manner in which this informing is being supported by the
government’s information and communication technology infrastructure and the
ramifications of this support for us and, perhaps, for you.
If I learnt one thing in the Army, it was that free beer can result in many things – but chief
among them was often a headache afterwards. The expectation that public sector information
will indeed be free as in beer is growing, and with it, the possibility of a subsequent
headache. This shouldn’t be seen as a criticism or complaint. It is, though, a realisation that
this expanded access needs to be well planned and carefully executed so its enjoyment is not
marred by the after effects.
Agencies are necessarily required to consider how to present this information on line. This is
a complicated question because it has many parts. Firstly, it consumes resources. While not
prohibitive, the required resources are also not immaterial. Almost all public sector
information starts its life in a computer friendly form. The ubiquitous Microsoft Office suite,
in use on 84% of government personal computers, is most likely the tool de jour in 2011. But
this has not always nor is it guaranteed to be always the situation. Even within that suite, the
format used varies between versions. Although these differences are often not marked,
especially in the eye of the reader, they generate quite a degree of discussion among the
software aficionados. You might be surprised to learn that of the 1300 odd legitimate
comments made on the AGIMO Blog since May 2009, almost 15% were made on one post
about this one matter.
Despite beginning in such formats, the subsequent official documents are usually the result of
printing and signing. Sometimes there are hand written annotations. There are usually
security classifications. Retention times vary. Document identification schemes vary
significantly. All these factors mean that online access, if provided well, is a serious
Once upon a time, access to these documents would have been provided via online
documents consisting of scanned images. Most of us can cope with this. Of course,
sometimes the images are a bit blurry but we can normally work our way through them. Not
everyone enjoys this ability. Yet, the beer has to be free for all. Accessibility is therefore an
important facet of providing public sector information. The Australian Government has
agreed to adopt the international World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility
Guidelines Version 2.0 through a national transition strategy reaching the middle level
standard (known as AA) by 2014. Using these guidelines, web content is required to be
perceivable, operable, understandable and robust for all users. Progress towards this goal is
well underway. The AGIMO accessibility team has actually won a Vision Australia award for
its work in this area.
AGIMO’s developing practice is to publish our presentations like this one on our blog. As an
example of accessibility, these guidelines will require us to present it in two formats, to
ensure there are options for impaired readers. PowerPoint slides, if used, will need to have
alternative text provided for each image so visually impaired readers can understand them.
My staff will sometimes need to adjust the contrast in the text for similar reasons. Once used
to these arrangements, they are not difficult to maintain but they do consume resources. More
significantly, the conversion of legacy documents, not prepared with these requirements in
mind, presents a considerable burden to agencies.
Not all public sector information, also referred to as PSI, is about documents though. In its
daily business, government produces a large number of datasets. Some of these, and their
sources, are well known to all of us. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ extensive statistical
data range is provided free online for all those who are interested. Aside from their obvious
value, they are often used for other purposes. For example, my favourite table 6345-5b, the
quarterly Labour Price Index, is often referred to in government contracts as the means of
applying annual cost increases for contractors.
Not all datasets have this degree of reuse for government purposes. Take, for example, the
National Public Toilet Map. Prepared as part of the National Incontinence Strategy, you
might think that the data that supports the map would be of little enduring value. Well, flush
that idea right out of your mind. The site now has over 700 government data sets
available for reuse by interested citizens, businesses and communities. A range of
applications have been developed to utilise this data, including two that utilise the toilet data.
These applications haven’t been paid for by government or required particular support or
resources. They’ve been developed by interested parties. Some may lead to commercial
opportunities, others may not – but that isn’t the point. Having been created for one reason,
there is no additional development required to present them for public consumption and little
additional cost to make them available on the site.
There have been some interesting legal issues to consider. To what extent should government
warrant the accuracy of such information? Is there a requirement to update such information
regularly, even if the reason for its original production is no longer relevant? Should there be
limits as to how it can be used or with what other datasets it can be mashed up? Generally,
these risks have been assessed as very low level. While Australia has yet to achieve the
numbers of datasets available on similar sites in the UK or USA, the collection continues to
The second part of this dynamic duo of data is the concept of free as in speech. To make
government data free in this way, we need to ensure it can be used by others without
licensing restrictions. The Government, through the Attorney General’s Department, has
amended the intellectual property regulations to ensure that the default license for
government data and documents is an open license, typically the Creative Commons license
CC-BY. While the previous crown copyright regime was rarely invoked, the new preferred
regime ensures that, with appropriate acknowledgement, those wishing to use PSI, for
example, quoting from the budget papers, can do so freely and legally.
This regime applies to websites just as it does to documents. Increasingly, government
interaction is occurring online. Our research shows that the preferred channel for interaction
with government for those who have access to the internet is the internet. Of those without
such access, 30% would prefer to use it if they could. Overall satisfaction with online
government services is also high – 86% reporting satisfaction.
Increased use of the online channels does bring with it some particular issues. Earlier, I
mentioned the AGIMO Blog. It is one of 35 blogs or websites supported on AGIMO’s
govspace platform. This platform allows agencies to quickly develop and deploy a public
consultation or collaboration site. For example, just last week, the Department of Prime
Minister and Cabinet deployed a Cyber White Paper blog to encourage public comment on
this initiative. Supported by a Twitter campaign and a more traditional website, this multipronged strategy appears to already be attracting interest in what could be a somewhat dry
Maintenance of such a platform is relatively simple but it cannot be ignored. The govspace
platform is receiving over 400,000 visits each month. Our AGIMO blog as I noted has had
some 1300 legitimate comments made on the 140 odd posts published since its inception.
However, there have also been 1400 advertising spam comments that we have had to
manually delete and over 10,000 spam comments blocked automatically by our software.
While these may seem alarming statistics, many of those manually blocked were made before
we implemented a ‘CAPTCHA’ technique. This mechanism ensures that comments can’t be
left by ‘bots’ but must be entered by humans.
More interestingly though, despite having a liberal, post-moderation policy for comments and
allowing hyperlinks to be entered as part of the comment, we have only had to delete 13
comments. Two of these were political comments made during the caretaker period, nine
were identical and submitted as part of an ill-directed campaign (we showed how many there
were but didn’t post them all), one was libellous and the last was silly and we blocked it to
avoid embarrassing its author. We think this is a pretty good result, indicating that our
audience is generally well-behaved and self-moderating. Of course, your mileage may vary
and, yes, we are aware that government ICT management isn’t likely to be on the busiest
shelves of your libraries.
This brings me to considering what effect this move online might have on your profession
and the manner in which you assist your customers to access information, either from
government or from other sources.
I mentioned earlier that I have thousands of books on my shelves at home. I don’t have
thousands on my iPad – yet. But I certainly have quite a few. The ability to purchase books
cheaply and at that proverbial drop of a hat is changing business models and not just for book
shops, small or large.
I presented at a conference last week on the use of ICT in supporting government service
delivery. As I have discussed, shortly afterwards, we posted the presentation on the blog. A
day or so later, a person with whom we worked on the Government 2.0 Taskforce posted a
comment on that blog. He mentioned a book he thought I might find interesting and relevant
to the presentation. I got around to reading his comment late that night. My interest was
piqued and despite it being quite late, within a few minutes, I had purchased a Kindle edition
and was reading it on my iPad. The book cost less than $10. In fact, in finding a legitimate
copy, I had to scroll past several sites offering pirated copies for free.
And it’s not just books. For the price of less than two hard copies of my favourite US
produced current affairs magazine, I purchased an entire year’s subscription to read on the
ubiquitous iPad – I even get notified by email when it is ready to download. I am sure your
libraries offer online subscriptions to a whole range of specialist journals – but these get
delivered to me so easily, it makes even remote online access to a library look inconvenient.
So, if books are so cheap online that library access isn’t required, journals are so easy to
access that the limitation on reading them is not cost but time, and a wealth of information is
available at the touch of a (Google equipped) finger, what role is there for the librarian?
I am sure this question must worry you from time to time. While nostalgia might keep some
of us coming for a while, and, of course, there will always be some for whom a computer is a
step too far or too difficult, these numbers are surely dwindling. I don’t know if there is a
definitive answer or whether it really is a significant problem for you. But, on the off chance
it is, allow me to finish by sharing with you how I see one potential future evolving.
Navigating the plethora of information available online is a challenge for many people. So
many options with so little to differentiate them means that finding the right answer is no
longer a matter of searching for a needle in a haystack but, rather, searching for a single
needle in a haystack-sized pile of pins. To torture the analogy somewhat further, some of the
pins are very sharp and can actually damage, perhaps, badly, the unsuspecting searcher.
What could an information professional do to assist here? On the demand side, assistance
with efficacious search methodologies is clearly required. People may attend an ‘information
place’ to seek such assistance but maybe a ‘click to chat’ mechanism on professional search
sites might be useful. Whether that service was live or queued requests for asynchronous
attention is a matter for further exploration. You probably do some of this already.
However, I think there is more to be done on the supply side. All government departments
produce a wealth of information and the obvious trend is to produce and publish more. While
archivists can tell us how to file and store it, the need to open it up has produced a need for
advice about how to present it to those who need it. I don’t mean in a graphic design sense
but in a way that makes it easy to find what is required, arranged logically so it can be
understood simply and authenticated in a way that allows the user to separate the digital
wheat from the chaff.
The librarians of my youth helped me find Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Stonewall
Jackson. Today, I think government needs assistance to ensure people, businesses and
communities can easily find the information it must or should provide to them. Once again,
we need your help.