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Reporting back from our Auckland open data event

65 people came along to hear Liz MacPherson from Stats NZ, Harkanwal Singh from the NZ Herald and our CEO Ed Corkery.

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Posted by Matt McGregor
September 12th, 2017

Auckland event

On 7 September, we hosted an excellent discussion in Auckland on the future of open data in Aotearoa. Following our kickoff event in Wellington in June, our loose theme was ‘Better Open Data.’ We borrowed this concept from MIT Professor César Hidalgo who, writing in Scientific American, criticises the open data movement for "a throwing-spaghetti-against-the-wall strategy, where opening more data, instead of opening data better, has been the driving force."

Our CEO Ed Corkery kicked off the event with a brief history of open data in NZ, including his own experience with the Official Information Act in the late 2000s. He referenced the creation of Open NZ, the policy wins with NZGOAL and the definite cultural change we’re seeing within government agencies. 

But, as would become a theme of the afternoon’s discussion, Ed also pointed out that we still have a long way to go. Too much open data is too hard to find and too difficult to use, leading to what we’ve been calling ‘dormant data’ — that is, data that is open but underused.

Following Ed, Stats NZ CEO Liz MacPherson — who joined us before attending the Women of Influence awards, for which she was a nominee — spoke about the importance of data for NZ’s economy and society. Liz argued that, as a renewable resource, open data had the potential to make a huge global contribution in the years ahead.

But Liz also echoed Ed’s point, arguing that we still have a long way to go before we can say that New Zealand’s government data is truly open by default. Liz walked through the journey at Stats NZ, from closed, to shared (through technologies like the Integrated Data Infrastructure) to open data (through data services like the Stats NZ Datafinder).

With caveats around the need for data to be properly anonymised and confidentialised, Liz closed with a strong argument in favour of open data release across government. It needs to be much easier, she argued, for people to access and use government data — which is why Stats NZ are prioritising investment in their own systems. There are some amazing things people can do with data, if only government agencies become more comfortable with open.

The third and final speaker was Harkwanal Singh from the NZ Herald. He began by noting that his job title — ‘Data Editor’ — was one that he invented, alluding to the fact that journalism has not traditionally been the most data-literate of fields. At the same time, many of the most crucIal stories journalists can tell about New Zealand are fundamentally informed by data (as you can see by checking out Herald Insights).

Harkanwal identified two major challenges facing data journalism. The first is that the authoritative sources of the ‘data’ part of ‘data journalism’ are often government agencies, and these government agencies don’t generally make it easy for users.

Talking through examples from NZ Police and Stats NZ, Harkanwal argued that it is often far too difficult for users to get the data they need, even when it is technically ‘open’. Some of the systems used by these agencies place an enormous burden on data users, who need to clean and process the data to make it usable. This is unfortunate, Harkanwal argued, as many of the most pressing stories in New Zealand journalism — such as housing — are fundamentally informed by government data.

A big thanks to everyone for attending, and in particular our guest speakers, Liz MacPherson and Harkanwal Singh! We look forward to taking Open Data in Aotearoa to Christchurch, with dates to be announced shortly.