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Public Servants told to free up information!

Public Servants told to free up information!

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Public servants should adopt the mindset that data collected by the state is the peoples’ data and should be made available to the public as a matter of policy.

“We need to have a voluntary system and not something where people have to coerce someone to give them data,” said Minister of Finance, Economic Planning, Sustainable Development and Information Technology Camillo Gonsalves.

Last Monday, Gonsalves, speaking at a training workshop on OpenStreetMap (OSM) said the government must set policy as it relates to the dissemination of data and he would like to see a focal point for the sharing of information attached to every government department.

Addressing a gathering in the Ministry of Health conference room, Gonsalves, the minister responsible for statistics, said the training in OSM is part of “a very exciting” initiative and thrust by the government to move into open data from a state perspective.

The Minister said the government has reached out to the World Bank for assistance in making government data available in a way that is usable by the private sector, civil society and ministries in the government.

The Minister stressed that on many occasions, there is an instinct in the bureaucracy not to share data, as persons with the information sometimes think, “Why are we making that public? We don’t know what is going to happen to it when you let it go; somebody might do something evil with the data.”

Sharing a personal experience, the Finance Minister said when he became a parliamentarian, he could not find the Hansard (records of Parliament) anywhere other than in the Parliament building.

“…and you would have to go ask someone to take a dusty book down and look it up and I said Hansard is public. I will start a website and put the Hansards online,” said Gonsalves.

He revealed that over the course of one weekend, he started a rudimentary website and put about a decade worth of Hansards that he had in Portable Document Format (PDF) and he was told immediately by people in that part of the bureaucracy to take it down, because there was a plan to make the Hansards available for a fee, so people could buy them.

Gonsalves said, in his opinion, the Hansards contained a lot of useful information that could be beneficial to the private sector and to young people who may have ideas about how to manipulate or use that data, either for fun, information or some commercial benefit, but they were gathering dust.

Today, the Hansards are still not online and those wishing to scrutinize those documents must journey to the House of Assembly, where they can look at the records free of charge.

“…and I think that we should share that data and I think that a lot of the discourse in this country, a lot of the debate in this country is hampered because of a very fundamental problem and that problem is a lack of data.

“A lot of people say I hear so and so is the problem or somebody told me that this and that is the problem and the data, when produced, can very easily shape the debate one way or the other; but when the debate comes after the fact, then there is a suspicion about the data,” said Gonsalves.

He added, “if there is a debate about an issue that exists in the absence of data and then the state produces data thereafter, then people say ‘aww’, somebody in a back room of the government just cook that up to squash the debate or to kill this issue….”

The Minister said he believes that once the data does not affect personal privacy or national security, it should be ventilated.

He said collected data can be made anonymous, as it is useful to know things like how many persons went to the doctor for a certain ailment, “and that can guide policy and action in a number of ways.”

Gonsalves stressed that we must have an open data policy and disabuse the public service of the notion that it is their data that they can give it out as a favour to people that they like “or they don’t like.”

He said without a policy, the access to data is left to all sorts of idiosyncrasies and it is important that the policy is set and moves from there.

The Finance Minister said an open data readiness assessment sought to determine if there is a demand for it in SVG.

“A lot of time, open data demand is driven by universities and we don’t have a university here, so there was worry that we are going to spend money to make this data accessible and then nobody is going to access it.”

He said the report revealed that we are a good candidate for the process for freeing up open data.

Gonsalves, who also wants to see publicly available data on the Laws of SVG, the Government Gazette and data on crime broken down, for example into the types of crimes being committed in different areas.

“The police are collecting the data, but there is no real reason why they should not share the data in a way that the public can assess and manipulate.

“We inform these discussions with data and we inform these discussions with data that is freely available so that the entire country, if it so desires, can engage in the conversation using a set of facts…,” said Gonsalves.

The Minister said he is hoping to launch an open data portal that will host various datasets, starting with least sensitive, least controversial data.(LC)

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