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Why Malcolm Turnbull’s move to open up government data is a big step forward for business

Thursday, 17 April 2014 | By Andrew Sadauskas

In a speech to the Australian Information Industry Association’s Navigating Analytics Summit last week Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull raised the possibility of opening up more government data to third party app developers.

Turnbull pointed out despite governments at all levels being big data collectors of data, they lag behind the private sector when it comes to the effective use of data analytics.


During the speech, Turnbull also cited a NSW transport app called TripView, which allows individuals to track the exact time of arrival of a bus or train from their nearest stop based on real time data from the state government.


He went on to pledge to make more government data freely available to private app developers.


Now, common sense says not all government databases should be available for third parties to access. For example, databases where the information can be used to identify the witness of a crime or a victim of domestic violence. Likewise, there are good reasons why databases belonging to defence, law enforcement or intelligence agencies should not be opened up.


However, even granting these few common sense exceptions, there are potentially big benefits to the business community in the opening up of APIs (application programming interfaces) that allow third-party app developers to unlock information in government databases.


Firstly, the ability to create new apps and services based on government information is a big business opportunity for entrepreneurial app developers.


Secondly, if the government goes a step further and allows APIs to submit forms to government departments, the benefits to business grow even further.


Consider this: Most businesses will run an accounting, payroll or ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, and already need to input a range of data on their staff – such as their name, address and hours worked – for their own records.


At the same time, when hiring new employees, they’ve had to fill out paperwork that contains a lot of the same information.


It would save a lot of duplication of effort if the ATO created APIs that allow this software to fill in submit forms and other information automatically, based on data already entered by a business.


Another example might be allowing a business’ point of sales software or ecommerce systems to use an API to automatically send GST data to the tax office as transactions happen in real time, greatly reducing the nightmare that is tax time.


And I’m sure there will be many other examples emerging from the minds of entrepreneurial app developers, if they’re given the opportunity.


As a starting point, the federal government has created a website called www.data.gov.au that allows you to search a range of government databases, at all levels, in real time.


For example, searching for “Melbourne” pulls up “Melbourne Water Use by Postcode”, “City of Melbourne Street Furniture Database” and “Metropolitan Fire Brigade Locations”.


While these are early days as far as opening up government databases, given the potential of more open information, it’s a big step in the right direction. It’ll be interesting to see what app developers do next.


This article first appeared on SmartCompany.