The government’s big data gamble

The government has released a mountain of useful data in the hope that it will inspire developers to turn it into user-friendly apps. But will the move pay off?

Productivity Spectator

Given Wayne Swan’s tight leash on the federal budget, could turning the mountain of data held by government agencies into applications help reduce the cost of the nation’s bureaucracy?

The recently completed hackathon in Canberra, GovHack, delivered a number of fascinating applications for data and demonstrates the possibilities for innovative services provided by outsiders.

Amongst the winning submissions from the two day hackathon, was a terrific graphical representation of the federal budget called ‘Where are my taxes going?”. Using this interface it’s possible to drill into different government services and determine what the average tax contribution you make to them. For instance in the last 2011 budget, the average taxpayer spent $416 servicing the national debt, and $642 toward Medicare.

Another application aggregates bushfire data and allows users to determine the best possible evacuation route. By crunching information already run by Geoscience Australia and overlapping it with Google maps, hopefully this service can take some strain off emergency services and help save lives. (The presentation can be downloaded here).

Australia’s chief information officer, Ann Steward, hopes that the wealth of non-critical data held by agencies will increasingly be crunched, mashed and turned into apps by developers.

“Who knows what it might add to the national productivity and growth in niche markets… and product offerings” she says.

You can see an interview with Ann Steward on Productivity Spectator where she talks about data, cloud services and e-services here.

Through Data.gov.au developers can access everything from ACT Supreme Court Judgements to Victorian microbreweries. It’s early days so far, and given the relative preponderance of apps showing where to locate public bathrooms, one must assume that a lot of Australia’s geeks are out and about far more often than stereotypes suggest.  But far more fundamental benefits have been unlocked (like a tool to compare suburbs by economic and education advantage vs crime statistics) and hopefully many more will be developed in the future.

Given the commitment to a federal surplus, the Government CIO, Ann Steward knows that she will need to keep a sharp eye on the $5 billion budget for her department, the Australian Government Information management office (AGIMO). That means there is a big appetite for tools that enhance the use of government services, at no extra cost to the taxpayer.

The trend is clearly pointing toward increasing use of e-services for government agencies. So far 500 thousand people are using the Australia.gov.au single login with thousands more joining each week. As one would expect from someone who works in Canberra, Steward declined to answer whether increasing the online capabilities might lead to cutbacks in staffing at “storefronts” like Centrelink or Medicare offices. But if AGIMO can facilitate the kind of savings that Australian Unity managed using apps (Productivity Spectator: An app to do your job?, May 7), then taxpayers should be heartened.

Jackson Hewett is the editor of Productivity Spectator

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