Whelan on Transparency

Noel Whelan makes some good points about the benefits of transparency to the exchequer in his Irish Times column today.

[…] the scale of the saving made by the Embassy in 2009 illustrates how powerful publication or the fear of publication can be in transforming the decision-making process as to how public money is spent.

Unfortunately – or perhaps understandably, given he is a political columnist – he talks about it only in terms of data relating to public expenditure and politics. In doing so the larger point about the benefits of publishing public data gets missed.

Imagine for the past five years Tallaght hospital had been publishing two set of figures. One set for the number of people they employ who are qualified to examine x-rays and another for the number of x-rays examined. Would someone have noticed that at some point apparently less people begun examining more x-rays than during the previous time period? Who knows. There would have been more chance of it happening if it was public, that we can say. It would have allowed someone – an analyst, academic, expert – to ask an intelligent (see the way I didn’t include ‘journalist’ there a few words back?) question and maybe solve or avoid what, it later emerged, was a serious problem.

Not to mention the fact releases a load of public data would result in a daycent number of high-skilled jobs and a serious amount of start-ups.

In Ireland public data is published arbitrarily and in file formats which do not encourage further analysis. Most government departments release only the datasets which they are required to by law, nothing more. Even when datasets are sought under the Freedom of Information Act they’re, bizarrely, often supplied as paper copies of electronic spreadsheets, not the electronic files themselves. This makes it far more difficult to analyse numerically and extrapolate publicly valuable statistics. That’s got to change.

We need a Data.gov.ie. We already pay for all public data to be collected, stored, examined and maintained, why can’t we use some of it?

In today’s world the value is not in keeping the information and selling it, it’s in making it available and using the resultant information to do what you do better. The US has recognised this, after a campaign by the Guardian the UK Government did too, check out the information you can get on those sites and consider the uses. Even the World Bank has started throwing massive datasets online and saying to the people “have it at it, lads”. Not to compare this little website to any of those entities but the expenses information and datasets Gav throws up, and analyses we do, comes from thinking along the same lines.

A better informed public is a more engaged electorate. Information is power. In a republic power should be in the hands of the citizens. So give us our data.

Footnote: What’s eTransparency, Noel Whelan? Surely putting it online is the default way to make information available nowadays. The E is completely superfluous. Putting Es before stuff to make them interwebzish… like totally soooo 1998, dude. Seriously though, solid column, worth reading.

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