A Battle For Open Public Data In South AfricaPublished on 8 May 2013 @ 1:17 pm
By Linda Daniels for Intellectual Property Watch
Cape Town, South Africa – Amid growing calls for the controversial Protection of State Information bill to be referred to the Constitutional Court of South Africa, open data activists are fighting a separate but related battle for government to release its data to the public.
Critics of the bill, popularly referred to as the secrecy bill, fear it will be used to persecute whistleblowers and stifle press freedom. The bill was passed by a majority vote in Parliament on 25 April and now needs to be signed by President Jacob Zuma in order for it to become law.
It is against this backdrop and the debate about information control that data activists are turning up the volume on their demands for government and publicly funded institutions to release data. Activists and others argue that to do so will increase transparency and is the impetus for building free and commercial information products that can aid decision-making.
Open Data and Democracy Initiative co-founder Adi Eyal has been making several considered and deliberate requests to various government departments for data and monitoring their responses, if he gets a response at all.
“Data is not easily available,” he said. “In most cases, government has not been explicitly reluctant to release data but it’s not clear how to access it. Licences are unclear and often very restrictive. Data should be licensed under open licences and commercial use would be allowed, why not?”
Open data, it appears, has not entered the realm of debate within government.
CEO of the Government Communication Information Service (GCIS) Phumla Williams said in a written response: “I could not establish any guidelines from the Department of Public Service and Administration – the custodians of this area in government – on how departments should handle requests for information that may be re-used for commercial purposes. Therefore, I cannot comment on the discretionary approach taken by different departments.”
The government has offered the promotion of access to information act (PAIA) as an avenue for any citizen to approach a government department for information. The piece of legislation gives effect to the constitutional right of access to information held by the state as well as information held by someone else.
Eyal said: “Without PAIA there is no clear process for how data can be obtained and PAIA requests are often ignored. Also data requests are sometimes dealt with suspicion.”
Currently, Statistics SA and the Independent Electoral Commission are the best known publicly funded organisations that release data regularly. The South African Police Service releases its crime statistics once a year.
Despite the paucity of available data from government, open data activists such as Eyal are choosing a less aggressive approach in trying to convince government why releasing data can be to it and the public’s benefit.
Eyal explained: “Open data has not yet permeated into the mindset of government, which is why civil society needs to push the issue. Antagonism is not the approach we should take…. I think we should lead through example, developing useful applications that demonstrate the utility of what data and government cooperation with civil society can achieve.”
Linda Daniels may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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