Open New Zealand
Hi, I’m Nat Torkington. I’ve done a lot of stuff in technology over the years, and started Open New
Zealand a few years ago. We build things to improve citizen’s lives, and they just happen to use
government data and services. Our people have helped DIA, DoC, and others as they come to grips
with open government. Last year I talked about open government: government as a platform, using
IT in the ways that worked for business, to transform government. This year, I want to start by
showing you this app:
Have you seen your sites? I couldn’t ﬁnd Auckland’s “report a downed tree” page (who do I call?)
and for graffiti I got sent to the various Rodney/Franklin/etc councils web sites. I’m sure if I looked
I could ﬁnd a council offering a PDF form to fax in.
But let’s reset. The purpose of this is not to beat up on your web sites. The single perpetual truth
of web sites is that they are always shit. You can spend two hundred grand on a new website and
next week you’ll be grumbling about how hard it is to ﬁnd things and how nobody ever uses it.
So let’s not have that conversation. Instead, let’s look at what happened with FixMyStreet. Who
built it? You don’t know. You probably haven’t talked to him. His name is Jonathan Hunt. He took
the UK’s FixMyStreet and put in the hours customizing it for New Zealand.
The important thing here is that you didn’t hire him. But thanks to him, you now have a friendly
front-end to your problem reporting, and you didn’t have to propose it, ﬁght for the budget for it,
argue about its design, go around endlessly about the branding of the home page, have to RFI RFP
or perform any of the other sacriﬁcial offerings it takes to make something happen in an
organization. It just happened.
1:There’s life outside
That’s my ﬁrst point: IT is generally an inward-facing operation at councils. But the services and
data that the council collects, caretakes, and uses will have a life outside the council. It’s time to
start thinking about how to engage with them. I’m not talking about the consulting shops that resell
your geodata, I’m talking about people who will build things for your ratepayers.
Something else to notice: this doesn’t just cover your council, it covers all of them.
How many software
developers does it take
to change local
I know, some of you are from smaller councils, councils that serve rural areas. How many software
developers do you have? Probably not many. But because you all have the same interface (email),
Jonathan was able to easily provide his service to all councils.
You won because you all
provided the same
Let me just repeat that: you all won because you all provided the same interface.
Jonathan’s using a digital conduit into your existing fault-reporting system: email. It’s low-ﬁ, but it
exists. Some projects have worked in situations where there wasn’t a digital conduit: WriteToThem
in the UK gave you a way to send faxes to MPs from web pages (because MPs were mandated to
respond to faxes but not emails) and they handled web-to-fax and faxed-reply-to-web conversion.
But it’s easier when those digital conduits exist. And email is just such a conduit. As you all know,
though, email is a very low-ﬁ conduit. There’s no structure so humans have to be involved in
ﬁguring out what to do with an email: is it a bounce? Is it selling me penis enlargers? Is there a well-
speciﬁed address in there?
Maps are a similar conduit: designed for humans, bastards to automate, and not a substitute for
actually having the data in your hands.
Email is the most primitive standard API: it can be automated, but not very easily and certainly not
very reliably. There is a sophisticated standard API for this sort of thing: the Open311 service. It’s
heavily used in the US, and the beneﬁts are scale and competition.
When you support a standard API like Open311, your service slots into applications that are already
written. This means you don’t have to write your own problem reporting iPhone app, Android app,
web site, or whatever. In fact,
there are lots of apps and web sites out there that speak Open311. Some serve different niches like
blind people or cyclists or Facebook users. Some overlap: there’s more than one iPhone app, for
example. These developers are competing to have the best apps, and again--you didn’t have to
pay them anything.
2: Standards are a
And that’s my second point: I think of standard APIs as a force multiplier: that is, you get a
disproportionate effect by working together. You make things possible that would be impractical if
you tackled them individually. As you experiment in this world of digital engagement, look for
existing standards and work with other councils to implement them.
Historically, councils have had data *businesses*. You sell ratings data to QV, you sell geo data to
consultants. Do you think the Wellybus or FixMyStreet folks would have created this great
resources for you if you had charged for the data? No. They’re not making money.
Who are you excluding?
Now think about startups, companies trying to do new things: they don’t have money either. Small
to medium business? They don’t tend to have a lot of money either.
Every charge represents
a lost opportunity
Every charge represents a lost opportunity for someone to do something innovative with your data.
Either you’ll have to pay to get that service built, or it won’t be built at all (and so the public beneﬁt
will never be realised).
barrier to entry
You probably have more barriers to entry than just the price. Do you have your own custom license
for the data? Do you require manual authorisation? My cofounder, Glen Barnes, talks about the
2am test: if the developer is on a jag at 2am and thinks “oh wow, the council probably has that”,
can they get it and keep coding? As he says, it’d be nice not to have to bother a human to ﬁnd out
whether my idea is the next Google or just destined for the gurgler.
Ecommerce sites like Amazon talk about “the funnel”. At the very wide end of the funnel, there’s
everyone who visits your site. As they click around, add things to their cart, go through the
checkout process, and pay, people drop out. Not everyone who adds stuff to the cart will go on to
buy those things. The funnel narrows.
You have a funnel, too: how many people come to your site, look at your license and say “shit, it’s
not worth hiring a lawyer to see whether I can do this”, or look at your prices and say “no way can I
pay that without customers”, or look at your signup form and say “manual approval? Tomorrow? I
have to fax in ID? What is this, 1988?” If you want apps and services that you didn’t have to build to
come out the other end of the funnel, you have to make it as broad as you can.
... than never to have
loved at all
I LGOIMA’d a large now-Supercity council recently to see how much they charged for some useful
geodata, compared to how much they made for it. They were making bugger all, less than $50k.
It’s natural to look at someone getting rich from your data and to say “bastards, I should have a
piece of that!”. It’s much weirder to erect pricey barriers to prevent freeloaders from getting rich off
your data, and in doing so prevent darn near every use of it. You’re probably used to looking at
lost income opportunities. I want you to start thinking about lost service opportunities. How many
things weren’t built, simply because you were afraid that someone, somewhere, might successfully
add value using your data? For fuck’s sake.
3. Open should be open
That’s rule 3: open should be open to all. Don’t let the fear of a successful business delivering
services based on your district (which makes that district more useful and desirable!) prevent many
more good things from happening.
It might sound a bit vague and theoretical. “Sure,” you say, “but I have tons of data and services
that nobody cares about.” You might be surprised about who cares for those data and services, but
let’s leave that alone. For now, I can name three things that people outside your organization care
about and want to hack with.
You can integrate with FixMyStreet above and beyond the level of email. Open311 gets you into
heaps of apps and web services. We can help.
First, the rating information that QV has access to. Companies like Zoodle want access to it. Many
NGOs and citizen groups also want that information. The pricing and availability of this information
vary ridiculously from district to district, and it remains well beyond the reach of a startup or SME
adding new features.
I would love to see a common low price for this information, preferably free.
And ﬁnally, the health reports on restaurants. You inspect them, and most of you don’t even
publish the results. Some do, via nasty ass web forms or PDF tables. Give us the data so we know
where it’s safe to eat. Just a csv ﬁle of the info that’s in that PDF ﬁle would be a good start.
• There’s life outside the ﬁrewall
• Standards are a force multiplier
• Open should be open to all
• Do three things this year
• Talk to us at Open New Zealand
So here are those key points again.
(run through them)
The top address is me, the bottom one is a group of three of us. We can help.
I’m keen to talk to your mayors, or CEs, or any other group that needs convincing so you can make
this happen. I know your ambitions are sometimes constrained by others, but I think we can work
together to make this happen.
Now it’s time for questions.