Rosie Williams has a BA in Sociology and is a budget transparency / open data advocate. In this post she discusses the possibilities for open data in health and offers an open invitation to the broader health community.

Rosie writes: 

In a remarkable feat of irony, a day before World Open Data Day (21 Feb), the ABS reported its intention to axe the upcoming 2016 Census. The ABS is the preeminent agency generating open/public data in Australia and the Census, the primary means by which that data on Australia, its peoples and places is collected.

While Crikey’s own Bernard Keane argued for the demise of the Census as a tool of government intrusion, economics correspondent Peter Martin argued in its favour- pointing out the need for current information on Australian people and conditions in policy and planning decisions. Amidst this media fracus I was re-launching a site that brought home to me just how important Census data and participation in the Census is to everyone.

KnowYourPlace is a site that features ABS SEIFA Data. SEIFA stands for Socio-Economic Indicators For Areas and, as the name suggests, provide scores which give some basis for comparisons of different political or geographic areas across Australia on measures of wealth and poverty. SEIFA data is used in policy and funding decisions by government and community groups. It is difficult to imagine a functioning first world country that does not rely on information like this to meet the needs of the person in the street.

SEIFA data provides a range of measures, some easier to grasp at a glance than others. National Rank is just what it sounds like. All Australian suburbs are given a rank from Binjari (NT) at 1, the lowest score for advantage, to North Coogee (WA) at 8248 with the highest score for advantage. At KnowYourPlace you can compare any two Australian suburbs to see how they compare on National Rank. You can also see the top and bottom percentiles mapped– showing the stark inequality between Indigenous communities and those with the least Indigenous people.

Each postcode is scored on 4 different measures with confusingly similar names. Each of these 4 measures RSAD, RSD, IER & IEO (I’ll spare you the longer names) consist of several variables and these variables are the answers to questions asked in the Census about things like languages spoken or how many cars are owned by a household- the kind of information the ABS believes reflects poverty or wealth. While each of these 4 measures are independent of one another, in KnowYourPlace I’ve constructed them as stacked bar charts so that at a glance you can see which postcodes have cumulative high or low scores.

For World Open Data Day I attended an event hosted by Code for Australia which brought together government agencies, coders and others to talk about which NSW government data might be made available for reuse and what problems could be addressed through the release of this data. In some ways the event was an experiment, an experiment in allowing the public to have direct input to government agencies on technical matters relating to open data. As an attendee I felt privileged to be able to put my voice to the state government representatives there to engage and I look forward to the positive results still to come.

Two Code for America Fellows (sister organisation to Code for Australia) are in Australia at the moment to talk to government, businesses and public about their experiences opening up data. Fellow Peter Welte is with the NSW Education Department turning their PDF’s into data sets for use in sites like KnowYourPlace. Providing information back to the public in ways which are meaningful to them is a chief method in opening government, improving both functionality and accountability. KnowYourPlace is an example of this.

With the help of Tim Senior and Paul Davis (who provided the health and party data respectively) I have added bulk billing rates by federal electorate and this data giving parties by electorate allowed me to implement this functionality across the ABS and SEIFA data. When information is provided with political context it allows us for example, to see at a glance which electorates are most sensitive to debates about medicare and bulk billing. What other health and social data could we be using to help the public, government or community groups better meet their own and others needs?

Much data is collected from GPs across the country, fed to external consultancies for analysis and handed back to the government as reports to inform regulation and decision making. Who else gets this data and what do they do with it? What can transparency bring to the health sector in Australia – where are our blind spots? We already collect hospital waiting times but then release the data at a level so aggregated as to be useless to the individual. Open government and open data are about making government respond to all users but in the end government is for the benefit of the people, not rent seekers or multinationals. We need to open up the opportunities to feed back into government the needs and desires of the people, to engage as citizens with the government to create better ways of meeting our own needs.

In 2013 the federal government signed the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral agreement which requires the government to do just this – commit to ways and means of opening information for the purposes of allowing us to better manage our own needs. There has been no visible movement in Australia’s participation in the Open Government Partnership since the last election. We have even been asked to explain our lack of progress to the OGP. It is up to us to make these things happen. Open government is about the bureaucracy but it is also about the people. People need to consider what information we want from government, what can be done with it, what protections we need for that information and make our opinions known. For their part the government needs to provide opportunities to receive this advice and help implement the solutions- events like the one recently held by Code for Australia.

Open data is a new concept across the world and particularly in Australia. It poses great challenges to the old ways of doing things. Social media and open data empower citizens in new ways but also impose on us the responsibility to decide what we want and to initiate our own engagement. It is not up to the government to do all the work for us, we can actually do stuff ourselves. Code for Australia provides a network for developers and community to engage to produce sites and applications to answer the questions we want answered. Random Hacks of Kindness provides a process and facilities for taking a community problem and finding a team of skilled technologists to build the solution.

Organisations like the Open Australia Foundation are further along, having been a founding open government project in Australia. The OAF provide several sites that serve up political and planning information along with a site Right to Know that enables the public to make FOI requests and share the responses publicly. The most recent project of the OAF is TheyVoteForYou which allows the public to find out who is voting against party lines.

There are some very passionate and committed people working in open data in Australia but getting the word out about individual organisations and projects is difficult. Consider this your opportunity to get involved, come along to an open data meetup in a city near you or contact any of the projects mentioned to find out what you can gain or give. Together we can improve the way we meet our needs and as a fellow citizen and civic technologist, I’d like to welcome you into the future.

 

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