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Information philanthropy

I learned an interesting term today, while reading the draft Government 3.0 report.

From the draft report:

11.5: Gifts of public good – Information Philanthropy

Innovation often occurs well in advance of the regulatory and cultural frameworks needed to support it. Many of the most innovative endeavours have been made by people with an idea, some time to volunteer and the wherewithal to make it happen.

For the many innovations that have social and democratic value but no apparent commercial return there are currently few options. Funding through government grants is unlikely, micro-donations and online advertising will rarely cover any substantial costs and the current philanthropic framework does not support substantial giving to such projects.

In the UK and the US examples such as mysociety.org and guidestar.com demonstrate the potential for social good. In Australia initiatives such as OpenAustralia and the Taskforce’s mashup competition and associated hack day events are clear examples of the potential and appetite to innovate with data and online engagement.

It may be possible for organisations whose purpose is to build online systems for public good to receive Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) and Tax Concession Charity (TCC) status for organisations but it is far from straightforward. There are no categories that specifically support the provision of public goods online in the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) regulatory definitions. DGR and TCC status provides both tax advantages for the organisation and the capacity to receive grants and donations from philanthropic foundations and other donors.

This is not surprising as Information Philanthropy is new and is not widely understood. Reducing the obstacles to the free flow of philanthropy to projects that use government data for public good, or improve the democratic process will no doubt boost innovation and expand the understanding of the value of such projects.[…]

The consultants to the Taskforce have proposed the establishment of such a Specially Listed Deductible Giving Recipient Foundation to support the initial development of info-philanthropy. For the purposes of establishing this, one might define the foundation’s mission as assisting in projects of properly registered not-for-profit organisations and which, in a way that is not party political or focused primarily on advocacy either:


Recommendation 12 – Encourage info-philanthropy

Because some of the most successful experiments in Government 2.0 have been fuelled by not-for-profits in leading countries such as the UK and the US, Australian policy-makers should minimise obstacles to info-philanthropy being treated as an eligible activity to qualify for deductible gift recipient and other forms of legal status which recognise charitable or philanthropic purposes.

(Emphasis mine.) In my opinion that’s a brilliant idea. I don’t really have a lot to add, I just wanted to point it out to everyone. I hope this recommendation is picked up by government. It would be an easy one to implement and make a start towards useful formal recognition of the good that such projects can do.

I’ve only quickly skimmed the report – it’s kinda huge – but I already found a few other nice nuggets. Like The Three Laws of Open Government Data:

The Three Laws of Open Government Data:

  1. If it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist
  2. If it isn’t available in open and machine readable format, it can’t engage
  3. If a legal framework doesn’t allow it to be repurposed, it doesn’t empower

Summarisable as Find, play, share. I like it!

There are also nice summaries on OpenAustralia, and the Social Benefits of PSI talks about the National Library of Australia newspaper digitisation program.

There’s lots to absorb here, but that’s what caught my eye in a first pass.

07 December, 2009 • , , ,

GeoScience Australia goes CC-BY

Following the Australian Bureau of Statistics, it appears that Goescience Australia is making the leap and going CC-BY.

In the press release, their CIO says

Our agency is custodian of a vast range of valuable geological and spatial datasets that are used by the public sector and private sector industries in the exploitation of resources, management of the environment, safety of critical infrastructure and the resultant well-being of all Australians. The Creative Commons licence has created a more efficient process for them to access this valuable information.

Exactly, right?

Although looking around their website, it seems like various bits of their data you need to specially order or buy. I wonder if that will be changing as they update their website.

I’m not really up on “map stuff” but I am sure the attendees of the recent FOSS4G conference (Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial) in Sydney will be pleased about this.

06 December, 2009 • , ,


The Future Melbourne wiki - "the city plan that anyone can edit"

Future Melbourne is a wiki I’ve been aware of for a few months now. The City of Melbourne decided to put their city plan for 2020 (replacing the one for 2010) into a publicly editable wiki for a month, as part of the public consultation process. There is a kind of summary of the project on the Future Melbourne blog, declaring it a success. There is also a short video with Mark Elliot whose company CollabForge helped the city customise and use the wiki (the wiki engine was Twiki).

I think Future Melbourne is an awesome initiative, but considering it garnered just 200 edits, it barely scratched the surface of what is possible with government-public consulting.

There seems to be an unstated assumption that people now generally understand what wikis are and how they work. I have not seen any study or survey with this kind of conclusion and until I see that, I would work off the opposite assumption. That is, I would have multiple free and highly publicised “what is a wiki? what is our wiki for? how can you use our wiki?” hands-on information sessions. To just say “come and edit our wiki” is not going to get the best response, because it assumes that the technology is familiar enough to be invisible — which it is not, even for enthusiasts. Either that or it is making the mistake of focusing on the tool instead of what can be achieved by using it (e.g. “contribute to (y)our city plan”).

The second thing which I think was not much explored was: what does an ideal wiki page look like when you are editing a city plan? Wikipedia works in terms of having one page per topic because of the NPOV (neutral point of view) policy. But asking people to form a NPOV city plan doesn’t make any sense. People can contribute by sharing their vision for what the city could be. But no individuals’ vision is more right or wrong than anyone else’s. For me, I would like Melbourne to be a cyclists’ paradise. Others may prefer a pedestrian’s paradise and still others may want a car-centric highway heaven. When we are all editing the transport policy page together, what rules can we or should we use to find a version of the page that is acceptable to all of us? Is that even possible? Or could there be multiple pages representing our individual wishes? How are they then to be understood in relation to each other and the rest of the plan? Which one is canonical?

I tend to think that neglecting this “ground rule” is not a good idea, and that with this kind of document a more simple “comment” or feedback approach may be better. You could use this in combination with allowing people to suggest new or expanded policies/goals.

I think this topic basically didn’t arise because of the low participation, but it is really something I would want to come to grips with before launching a wiki project with greater participation.

Another thing that makes me think a wiki is perhaps not the perfect tool for this is the short editing timeframe – one month. Wikis show their strengths over months and years and probably decades. For one thing the longer time scale allows for a community to develop. While in Future Melbourne’s case they had staff monitoring and responding to edits, and that’s good, certainly better than nothing, and probably the best you could hope for in a short time frame — it’s still something that reflects a top-down power structure. The reins may have been loosened a bit but they’re still ready to be snatched back up should things go awry. It wouldn’t hold a candle to a truly community-run/powered/managed wiki. You have to be in charge, have some power, to really own something, and it’s then that you become invested, engaged. It’s then that you care.

The City of Melbourne has made some bold steps but I think there are many more ahead. Once they start to be taken the relationship between government and the public will become very vibrant and interesting. And not a moment too soon, eh?

18 October, 2008 • , , ,

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Good things afoot regarding public sector information licensing in Australia

While I’m at it…there are lots of promising rumblings at the moment from various parts of Australia regarding the licensing of public sector information (PSI), ie. government data.

The federal government just recently released a report on the review of the National Innovation System. As reported by Creative Commons Australia, it includes a specific recommendation that Australian governments use a Creative Commons license. Of course for Wikimedians, the trick is in exactly which license they choose to use.

The Victorian government recently held an Inquiry into Improving Access to Victorian Public Sector Information and Data, which had a Discussion Paper with lots of favourable ideas about using Creative Commons licensing. I made a submission on behalf of Wikimedia Australia. I emphasised the need for works to not have NC or ND restrictions in order to be directly usable by Wikimedia projects.

There was a bunch of other stuff I wanted to mention, like open access, but it was rather written under deadline pressure and I found it hard to weave into a cohesive narrative in response to the Discussion Paper. Perhaps I should have just gone off on my own ramble anyway. :)

Tomorrow is Software Freedom Day and apparently I’m speaking at that, so I should have more to report very soon.

20 September, 2008 • , ,


"Foundations of Open" Australia 2020 local summit


Well, it’s over a week since I attended the Foundations of Open: Technology and Digital Knowledge local summit. For those outside Australia, in November last year Australia elected a new government after eleven years. One of the new government’s first initiatives was to announce a plan for a Australia 2020 summit. The summit proper is being held next week, with 1,000 attendees taking part. The whole thing is very encouraging of participation, and part of that includes the “local summits” by MPs. Senator Kate Lundy held hers with a focus on open source, open access and related issues. In 12 years, where might progressive and friendly government policy lead us? This summit was about putting heads together and dreaming big, then filling in the steps in between to try and make the ideal a reality.

Appropriately enough, Senator Lundy runs her own website using Joomla, and the summit co-chair Tom Worthington put up all the notes from the day into a Moodle course. (And I noticed while slides and things were being set up that Senator Lundy runs Ubuntu. Mad :D)

Anyway, for some reason I find the video files time out or something and won’t play. You can download them directly instead. The recordings are excellent – close up and very good sound. (The small sized files are quite decent quality, don’t feel obligated to download the large files.)

I particularly recommend

The first four are very good speakers, each in different ways. Tridge was very impassioned and articulate. Jeff is has quite a showman style. Pia is straight-up and her talks are information-dense and clearly informed by her experience. The integrity and leadership of all three, from the free software movement, is inspiring. While they know the importance of being able to speak other audiences’ languages (business, government) and how “selling” free software can help it spread, they also know there are certain values that cannot be compromised — and they are up-front about this too.

Professor Cram’s talk is considered and nuanced; he’s clearly aware (in a way that perhaps people from the free software movement tend to underestimate) that there is a cost to freedom (from (7’20’‘):

I think the way that we’re [ANU] thinking about it [university open access policy] is interesting to reflect on. There’s a technology layer that we’ve already got control of: the repositories, and the interfaces that people can access our work through are now available, and in many respects turned on. We’ve got a policy layer that has to do with the management of copyright, the interactions that we have with publishers. […] And then finally there’s the user layers, and they’re really quite interesting.

Just to show the kinds of things that we have to worry about: suppose that we conduct medical research. And our medical researchers publish a paper that’s quite erudite about a treatment for diabetes. And suppose that that, then, is on the web. And it’s uninterpreted. People will access that. The writers of the article never intended it to be addressed by people who worry about diabetes, and it’s not, therefore, interpreted in a way that’s helpful to them. It would be wrong, I think, to withhold the information, but it also has elements of wrongness to not interpret it as well. And the interpretation is something that we don’t think of doing at present. If you publish a medical paper in a medical journal, you’ve got a pretty good idea about most of the audience, and you don’t need to interpret it. So we are thinking about what it would mean to interpret, the portal through which the community accesses our online information.

(Professor Cram’s talk of “interpretation” reminds me of Andrew Keen in The Truth According to Wikipedia, lamenting the loss of “gatekeepers”, editors and publishers who choose what to publish — except Professor Cram can see the potential benefits despite the guaranteed difficulties on the way. It strikes me that Andrew Keen can see no better society than the one we had 10-20 years ago.)

There is also Jessica Coates from Creative Commons Australia (video, 37min), just in case you’ve never heard a Creative Commons spiel :) and Ann Steward from the government Information Management Office (who knew such a thing existed!), (video, 29min) if you want to hear some more perspective from someone actually in the public service (eg. what barriers exist to adoption of FLOSS). (I also found out about this document: Guide to Open Source Software for Australian Government Agencies.)

…FLOSS. I just wrote “free software” and changed it. The phrase reminded me of a “nomenclature problem” that came up from Ann’s talk. Tridge earlier had deliberately used the phrase “free software” (well, I kinda feel everyone who uses it must do so deliberately). Ann, during her talk, said something like “Open, but not necessarily free, software”, then talking about the cost of e.g. training. “Open, but not necessarily free” is a strange thing to people who hear the phrase “(as in freedom)” in between the words “free” and “software”. After her talk, Tridge tried to make clear the distinction, of free-as-in-freedom software, but it didn’t quite make it.

Stallman says, Every time you say “free software” rather than “open source,” you help our campaign. Sadly I think the campaign for keeping alive that distinction is one that does not survive outside the software development community.

Anyway, Foundations of Open is now done, and the presenters’ submissions are now available. Let’s see if this big picture thinking can translate into anything concrete!

12 April, 2008 • , , , , , ,

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Links for 2008-02-01

The Queensland Spatial Information Council seems like the appropriate government site but I don’t have the patience right now to find any document announcing any such release. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet…

At any rate, it sounds impressively progressive for a government body!

01 February, 2008 • , , ,


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