In August 2007, the National Library released the Digital Content Strategy, a document written to guide the Government’s approach to the Internet. This document touched on the topic of open content and although the Geospatial Office was tasked with ‘opening up’ Government content, in many ways it was too vague and provided no motivation for Government agencies to share their data.
The Digital Content Strategy came tantalisingly close to being a visionary document which could be used to encourage agencies to reconsider how they use the Internet to serve the public.
Much of the document was concerned with ‘content delivery’ and the requirement of high-speed broadband as a key requirement for getting the NZ public more involved with government services. Interestingly, the document makes a specific point of accepting that the Internet constantly goes through rapid change and that the Government needs to accept that.
“We need more of these content applications developed that enable a reflection of New Zealanders interests, lifestyles and cultures, whether as consumers, citizens or content creators. These applications also need to take advantage of the rapid change and growth in methods of access to digital creative content, as digital platform convergence continues apace.” (page 20)
Although content often costs money to capture, distribution and replication of this content is essentially free. Government agencies are still operating under the assumption that there is a distribution cost, or under a cost-recovery system. But since the tax-payer paid for this content in the first place, why should we have to pay for it again when distribution costs are nill and it’s already been paid for?
The document recognises the explosion of user-generated content through less formal channels such as blogs and wikis etc,
“The growth of the digital space, and in particular the formal and informal public space, is both a result of, and a driver of demand for, better connection, access, and search. In a digital age, these influencing factors are integral to understanding the digital content environment. In turn, without addressing digital content, the nature of each of these factors cannot be fully appreciated.” (page 12)
The first section concludes by saying that content must be accessible and easily discovered, as well as shared and used.
“The five elements of digital content help establish a set of content-related areas to address in achieving a digital New Zealand. Expressed as a set of outcomes, they create five main outcome areas for the Digital Content Strategy:
Digital content is being created and protected;
Digital content is accessible and easily discovered;
Digital content is being shared and used;
Digital content is being managed and preserved; and
Digital content is understood.” (page 15)
The content creation issue is very important. The Digital Content Strategy anticipates that the way content is controlled will change – a result of the changing way content is generated. With technology offering on-demand viewing and flexible options regarding how it is viewed, it is more difficult to protect content creators rights and to guarantee them fair payment and protection. With the popularity of the iTunes Store, it would seem that people are willing to pay for content if they consider it a fair price. Piracy and copyright infringements aren’t an inevitability, any more than it is now.
Licensing of government content needs to be done in a flexible manner, given the variety of ways the content might be used.
A flexible content licence will enhance the competitiveness of the New Zealand IT industry. The Digital Content Strategy suggests using the Creative Commons licence, while noting that the Copyright Act has been modified to address the issues that the Internet has created for copyright holders.
“Part of the debate regarding fair dealing versus the right of creators to control their works, relates to how the Internet, and digital technology more broadly, have changed the basis for the creation and exchange of information, and with it, copyrighted works and intellectual property. Licences must conform to current legislation, in particular the Copyright Act.” (page 20)
Increasing content availability dovetails very nicely with increasing the availability of high-speed broadband. Web applications are often too intensive for dial-up Internet connections to handle.
Page 19 explicitly mentions the need for more local content applications:
“We need more of these content applications developed that enable a reflection of New Zealanders interests, lifestyles and cultures, whether as consumers, citizens or content creators. These applications also need to take advantage of the rapid change and growth in methods of access to digital creative content, as digital platform convergence continues apace.”
The key issue here is about the data that these applications use. Making content available is not just about sticking a summary of a document on a webpage, or creating an RSS feed with a teaser to another webpage – we need the raw data. NZLive.com offers an RSS feed of events according to the criteria you specify, which is extremely useful, except that the RSS feed does not split the event information into any useful structure. It’s essentially useless for web developers. A more useful approach would have been an API interface via SOAP or something similar.
On page 22, points 3 and 5 address the content issue – sort of.
Point 3 notes that New Zealanders are quite happy to use locally developed content when it’s available, while point 5 talks about offering content creators various options about how their content is used and most importantly, shared.
Sharing is a very important concept here, since web applications essentially redistribute content. Sometimes it’s almost unrecognisable from it’s original format, other times it had been combined with other data sources, while at it’s most simplest, it’s just a plain redistribution of the original data. Regardless of how it’s done, nothing can be achieved if the copyright licence prevents redistribution.
Despite these challenges having been identified, no actions are being specifically taken, especially for point 3 – there’s no mention of it at all! Point 5 is being handled by the Ministry for Economic Development, which will provide “…public information aimed at raising New Zealanders awareness of their intellectual property rights and obligations, and mechanisms for protecting those rights, both generally and with respect to digital content.” This effort’s timeframe ends in 2008 and presumably is linked to the Copyright Act of 2007, so in otherwords, no further action is being taken to address this.
Essentially, redistribution rights are up to the creator to grant. If they haven’t specifically adopted the Creative Commons licence or something similar (ie, GPL, BSD etc), then chances are that the content creator has adopted the more traditional copyright restrictions and your redistribution rights are severely limited.
Ideally, the Creative Commons licence will be the default licence for all Government data, unless there’s a clear reason why that is not possible, which requires exemption from the SSC to be granted.
GETTING DIGITAL CONTENT DISCOVERED
As the introduction paragraph on page 25 admits, getting local content discovered is a big challenge. Most of the content New Zealanders use comes from overseas. The Government has spent millions trying to boost the visibility for local content, and projects like NZLive were quite successful, but the most effective group of content providers for New Zealand content would be New Zealanders themselves. Sites which rely on user-generated content such as Facebook, Flickr and YouTube have all been massively popular, and devices such as the iPhone have encouraged developers to create applications, many of which provide localised content to individual users.
Getting the data that provides the localisation details is the biggest problem for New Zealand developers. The Government holds information on a vast range of subjects, and there are very few companies which can compete with the Government at this level, especially since the Government-owned data is often compulsorily acquired.
Releasing this data under an open licence with redistribution rights would encourage development of services and applications, all of which would boost the visibility of New Zealand content.
In some instances, developers could repackage Government data to solve accessibility issues for people with visibility impairments or other issues which prevent them from accessing data in the traditional manner. Developers of mobile phone applications would be the obvious example, since data on webpages is often too dense to be of much use on a small display.
The job of making geospatial data available has been given to the Geospatial Office. Their mandate is to encourage the release of mapping data which is held by various government agencies. This is one of the actions listed on page 28 as a response to the challenges listed for this section.
The Digital Content Strategy makes great mention of content-based sites such as Flickr etc, and except for this solitary action, it shows no enthusiasm to provide the means for New Zealand to develop local alternatives.
SHARING AND USING CONTENT
One of the Web 2.0 core competencies listed on page 30 is “trusting users as co-developers to add value”. By unlocking the data that the Government holds, the New Zealand public can become co-developers and achieve the goal of section 3 on page 29:
“New Zealanders and New Zealand organisations are at the forefront of sharing and using digital content.”
On page 30, the document mentions international precedents. The Canadians have apparently removed user charges for electronic mapping data. It then follows the Canadian example with this statement:
“In New Zealand, where Crown copyright lasts for 100 years, there is scope to consider appropriate copyright permissions for commercial use and adoption of standard form licences to promote easy public sharing and re-use of official information. Both commercial and non-commercial users should be able to benefit from vital data that can lead to a public good outcome for government.”
Statistics New Zealand is charged with “making more information freely available” as an action on page 30. This is a response to this challenge:
“Unlocking public information: Government agencies need to rethink the public good aspects of making their official information more widely and easily available and usable in digital form, along with their applications of Crown copyright.”
The only problem with this lofty goal is that the language isn’t strong enough. Statistics New Zealand has a timeframe from 2007-2011 to unlock “250 million peices of statistical information”, but how useful that is remains to be seen. Allowing agencies to pick and choose what they release will result in only the easiest options being taken with the least amount of effort required. And even that will only happen if there’s enough demand made.
The concept of open data goes further than just statistics and map data. NZ On Screen (yet to be launched at the time of writing) will be a collection of video and audio made in New Zealand from over the decades. NZLive is a database of every event in New Zealand. The Police would have information on traffic flows, accidents, crime etc. All of this is outside of the basic statistics and map data that ‘unlocked data’ in the Digital Content Strategy refers to.
Under Outcome Area 4, the document discusses ‘interoperable standards and formats’. This is an issue which is often platform-dependant and at worse a decision could be made to adopt a standard which is then rendered obsolete. For example, RSS as a preferred format has been super-ceded by Atom, a much more flexible format for displaying RSS data. Web developers do not need a format to be imposed upon them. If they’re interested enough to get the data, then any format which is flexible enough, is good enough.
THE DIGITAL DARK AGE
The Digital Content Strategy warns about preventing a ‘digital dark age’, which is caused by data not being accessible for future use – often by being locked into proprietary formats. Unfortunately, the document is constrained by only addressing the current state of Internet usage by the New Zealand Government. Very little mention is made of emerging trends and the popularity of alternative computer devices like the iPhone. To make Government data available on an unknown range of future devices, the data needs to be made available under a flexible, permissive licence which will allow developers to use it as they see fit, in their capacity as co-developers of content.
These new applications will increase the visiblity of New Zealand content on the Internet and provide a boost to the IT industry in New Zealand. The biggest winner from open content would be the New Zealand public.