Friday, November 21, 2008

Seminar: Towards a National Information Strategy

“Australia is behind many other advanced countries in establishing institutional frameworks to maximise the flow of government generated information and content” – Venturous Australia: Building Strength in Innovation.
On 19 November 2008, I participated in a free public seminar about the Review of the National Innovation System: Towards a National Information Strategy. The half-day seminar was held in the Hyatt Hotel in Canberra and was hosted by the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research and the QUT Law School.

The speakers at the seminar included Professor Brian Fitzgerald and Professor Anne Fitzgerald, both IP professors in the QUT Law School, and Dr Nicholas Gruen of Lateral Economics. You can view the seminar agenda and speaker bios here.

Professor Brian Fitzgerald spoke about innovation as a force that results from the exchange of ideas. He said that collaboration was a key methodology for innovation. Professor Fitzgerald referred to statements made earlier this month by Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner when he said, “The rise of internet-enabled peer production as a social force necessitates a rethink about how policy and politics is done in Australia”. (Reported in the IT section of The Australian). Professor Fitzgerald spoke about how we need to move from a “gated” model of information distribution and knowledge creation to an access based model. He said, “By sharing IP we can harness a powerful new force – mass collaboration”. He also noted Barack Obama’s technology policy, which promotes openness of the internet and openness in government and research.

Dr Nicholas Gruen gave a compelling talk, very similar to his talk given at the CRC-SI Conference this year (see my earlier post). I like the way he defined innovation as “fragility in the face of serial veto” or “fragility amongst robust hazards”. He also gave his own interpretation of the current financial crisis – “The world has created the perfect storm designed to show us the importance of managing information.” One of Dr Gruen’s examples (there were many) of how small amounts of data or information could be used to vastly improve the lives of Australian citizens was what he called the “windows on workplaces” scheme. The idea is this: increasingly, it is becoming important to Australians to have a work/life balance. There are many workplaces that claim to offer a work/life balance, but in reality many do not. And currently there is no way for people to find out the true state of affairs until they actually start working for the company in question – and usually end up working long hours and missing social/family engagements. Wouldn’t it be easy, Dr Gruen says, to ask people to answer a few simple questions – this could be done when ABS is collecting census data – about whether or not their workplace actually delivers on their work/life balance promises? Then workplaces could be ranked according to what they actually provide – not just what they claim to provide – which would create proper accountability and incentives for workplaces to deliver on their promises. The scheme is simple and cheap, but if successful it could have an enormous impact on the lives of working Australians.

Professor Anne Fitzgerald spoke about policy developments in Australia and around the world on access to and reuse of government data and information. These policy developments are charted in a literature review that Professor Anne Fitzgerald is currently undertaking, entitled, Policies and Principles on Access To and Reuse of Public Sector Information: a review of the literature in Australia and selected jurisdictions. (See my earlier post on this).

I gave a brief overview of the research we have conducted in the area in the QUT Law Faculty. I also spoke about Professor Anne Fitzgerald’s literature review, and our new website about access to and use of public sector information (see my earlier post). My powerpoint presentation can be accessed here.

Overall, it was a very successful and informative seminar.

It was also great to hold the seminar in Canberra. Not only did it enable us to engage with many federal politicians, but we also had the afternoon to look around this lovely city. I visited the National Gallery of Australia, the High Court of Australia and old Parliament House, and had a grand old time before my flight back to Brisbane.

New: literature review and website on access to public sector information

Professor Anne Fitzgerald of the QUT Law Faculty is currently undertaking the massive task of reviewing the literature around policies and principles on access to and reuse of public sector information in Australia and worldwide.

The literature review is divided into chapters according to jurisdiction. This is an ongoing project and Professor Fitzgerald will be releasing the literature review in installments as each chapter is completed.

She has just released Chapter 1: Australia and Chapter 2: New Zealand. Currently, these chapters appear together in PDF form, but I believe they will appear separately later. The literature review so far is extremely comprehensive – chapters 1 and 2 alone comprise 268 pages!

Forthcoming are the remaining chapters – Chapter 3: International; Chapter 4: Europe, UK and Ireland; Chapter 5: United States and Canada; and Chapter 5: Asia.

Currently, the literature review is available in the QUT ePrints Repository (here), but it will soon appear on the new website: is the website of a new research group with which I am involved – Access to and Use of Public Sector Information (auPSI). auPSI’s mission is to provide a comprehensive web portal that:
  • promotes debate and discussion about the re-use of PSI in Australia and more broadly throughout the world;
  • focuses on developing and implementing an open content licensing model to promote access to and re-use of government information;
  • develops information policy products about delivering access to and encouraging the re-use of PSI;
  • keeps users informed about international developments in this area; and
  • assists governments and policy makers on the development of appropriate policy about the creation, collection, development and dissemination of public sector information.
This mission is built on achieving the following three objectives:
  1. greater efficiency in the reuse of PSI throughout the world;
  2. leading to better quality of outcomes;
  3. for greater impact of publicly funded knowledge within our society.

The literature review will be released in full on this website, as will a forthcoming article by Neale Hooper, Timothy Beale, Professor Anne Fitzgerald and Professor Brian Fitzgerald entitled, “The use of Creative Commons licensing to enable open access to public sector information and publicly funded research results – an overview of recent Australian developments”. Keep your eyes peeled.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

CRC-SI Annual Conference 2008

This morning I attended the CRC for Spatial Information (CRC-SI) 2008 Annual Conference. The morning plenary was entitled, "Innovation in Australia" and was chaired by Peter Woodgate, CEO, CRC-SI. The session was opened (via video link) by Senator The Hon Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, who noted the increasingly important role of spatial information and who expressed a desire to "restore public good as funding criteria" when the Australian Government is funding research and development.

In this session, I found Dr Nicholas Gruen's talk on Innovation in Australia especially interesting. My notes from his talk are below. They are a little rough - my apologies.

Dr Nicholas Gruen: Innovation in Australia

Information in the economy

What is the economy?

We used to think of the economy as “a thing which makes things”. But we now understand that there is more to economic policy than that. The economy is a “giant trading machine” – trade is important in our (new) concept of the economy. In economic policy reform over the last 30 years – including competition policy – trade is the basic theme.

But the economy is more than THAT.

It is also a “giant risk management machine” and a “giant information management machine”.

We have a mixed/hybrid economy – an ecology of public and private goods = markets are always this, they are not just private goods.

Firms compete according to standards, which are a public good (language, more, property rights and other laws, technical and trading standards); then firms compete in the private goods that fall within the gaps of the public goods.

“It is silly to talk of the internet as a private thing; it is not.”

Information is special – we need markets to harness distributed information and provide incentives.
Frederik Hayek – one of the more important things of a capitalist economy is its capacity to deal with distributed information

But markets dont handle information ideally either – Arrow, Akerlof, Stigliz – Information is a potential public good (reproduction is often costless) – best way for information to circulate in principle is for nothing (in cost) – standards are crucial to the passage of information (in ways that are much more integral than markets for trading for goods) – and standards themselves are a public good

Top down innovation in Government

We’ve been relatively good at it – e.g. secret ballot; HECS etc
We (here I think Nick is referring to the Innovation Review Panel as “we”?) recommended that we should further extend such innovative platforms – for instance HECS

Bottom up innovation in Government

This is the hard part
We looked at mechanisms to maximize the contribution of all levels of public sector innovation and also from the outside
Bottom up Innovation in the states (Vic) – e.g. Policy Idol – emerged from strategy workshop in the Premier’s Department – policy competition for junior officers – has been a very successful program

Then there’s government facilitating innovation elsewhere – the UK is pioneering various “challenge based” means of seeking to foster innovation

How to promote services innovations? -

The inadequacy of the tax concession

R&D tax concession works badly for services – to make it work you need to broaden the definition of R&D, then what happens is that firms in practice work out how to make their perfectly regular business activities fit within the new definition = not fair

Services innovation is often heavily regulated – finance, health, education – e.g. Rismark International

Permission to innovate?

regulation makes innovation difficult

We need innovation facilitation – we have major projects facilitation – we proposed something similar – Advocate for Government Innovation:
  • operate an Enterprise Challenge program
  • be a shopfront for “permission to innovate” processes
  • be bureaucratic champion for highly innovative firms and projects
  • help disseminate information about public sector information
  • provide resources to promote more flexible tendering

Innovation is often hard, but freeing up information is harder – e.g. Joshua Gans project to locate public toilets on iPhone – asked Department for permission to use information (which is available online) to make available on iPhone – Department said no because of contractual obligations; copyright issues etc.

The problem of serial veto – information has many hurdles to jump:
  • IP;
  • Contract;
  • permission hurdles;
  • “we see IP as a property law rather than some form of economic policy (like we now see competition policy)”;
  • compatibility of formats and systems,;
  • lawyers professional cultural of risk aversion and control maximization
Fragility in the face of serial veto - e.g. Patents v Open Source; open information v cultural of public service, legal profession and the media

Fragility amongst robust hazards – like trying to coordinating systems within houses: security alarm, lighting, sound, ventilation and air conditioning – we are still not very good at this, still seems like a “futuristic” concept