Open Data – 2014 Digital 21 Strategy – Public Consultation

Dear Gregory So and the OGCIO,

I wished to add some perspective to the role that open data can play in the Digital 21 Strategy. The passage below from the public consultation provides a very simplistic portrayal of how every government should proceed when it comes to open data. This statement does not go far enough. The success of any open data strategy is dependant upon whether it gets embedded in the culture of how all Government Departments function. It is not sufficient to say that data will be released in machine-readable formats. Instead, there needs to be a greater emphasis on the idea that much of the information that is produced by the Government should be publicly released immediately (produced to be made public). The position that Data.One has taken is exploratory at best. They seek to find ‘high-value’ datasets and help release them. This endeavour misses the point. Who is to say what value particular information may have? As part of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at The University of Hong Kong, I know that the value of information is sometimes only seen over time and after much examination. The true benefits of open data come when a government believes in the importance of exposing how they function. This leads to greater scrutiny, but also greater understanding. The well-functioning government works with all its stakeholders, and this includes its citizens and public and private organisations.

The Code on Access to Information sits at the heart of the role of open data in Hong Kong. Many have been calling for a Freedom of Information Act to provide a legal framework in which to reliably get information. Even setting this issue aside and focusing on the relationship between a government and its information, it is safe to say that the Government is in the information business. It is essential to its health to produce as much public information as possible The Hong Kong Government has a robust press release system, and yet it suffers from two main issues. The first is that press releases are in a non-machine-readable format and there are not sufficient mechanisms to programmatically search the archives. This is a small technical issue compared to the second issue. The real problem is that HKG (and they are not alone in this) still believe their role is to explain the meaning and value of the information released. This process is an archaic view of government information. Just like Data.One’s view of ‘high-valued’ datasets, the value of information should be open to the experts in those fields. One of the many jobs that Journalists provide is to make sense of information. When we to work with raw data, we are able to connect the dots in a much more meaningful way. Instead, we are faced with decrypting a typical Government press release. There is truth in data. The Government of Hong Kong does good work, and it behoves itself to illustrate that with its data.

As a more practical suggestion for the passage below (#34), I would encourage the OGCIO to incorporate a few ideas:

The first being that HKG needs to create a ‘culture of open’. This is perhaps a slightly strange term, but it truly embodies the intent that governments the world over should have. And since the 2014 Digital Strategy is meant to be a roadmap for the next many years, it will be essential that it articulates the principles of using technology to improve its information architecture and exchange. And this is, it should be noted, not specifically a technological issue. Although technology appears to drive much of what we do, it is nevertheless grounded in deeper principles. If the section on open data does not include reference to opening and improving the access to information, by establishing a long term goal of releasing information ‘early and often’, this passage will do nothing more than position the government as a non-agile organisation.

The final point is that government departments will look to this strategy as a way to interpret their relationship to information. The more open the language is, the more encouraging the OGCIO can be. We have found in many cases that some departments are simply unsure whether they can release information when it is requested. It is somewhat telling that the Guide on the Code of Access to Information is almost 5 times as long as the actual Code. Hong Kong should learn from the United Kingdom which has set in motion a well-established FOIA, which includes a very meaningful archives law. They have also gone on to guide their employees with things like the need to define a public task. This kind of guidance will help to establish a culture of open and enable quicker innovation and advancement in technology, in a way that a prescription for more machine-readable data (and a few APIs) could ever do.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide some feedback. I look forward to seeing Hong Kong embrace its role as a 21st century global city.




34. Through different channels (like press releases, publications, websites, etc.), the Government releases a lot of information in different areas. However, most of such information can only be read but cannot be used. In view of the immense benefits of widening access to PSI for free and easy re-use, we propose to make all Government information released for public consumption machine-readable by default. Where appropriate, datasets will be released with application programming interfaces (APIs), providing predefined functions to make their retrieval easier.

I’m tired of looking at websites. I want to use them.

The world isn’t getting any simpler. All of us have woken up this century to find ourselves tied down to computers. Our work and life depend upon them. And now, even in light of our privacy being continuously violated, we’re (for the most part), unable to disconnect. So in this uncomfortable space, our relationship with technology, computers and ultimately the Internet, is pushing us to find better ways to ease our new found digital lives. And yet, each time we visit a website, even a new website, we bang our heads against the sheer idiocy of the experience.

“Why are they making me do this? Why so many clicks? Can’t they just give me what I need?”

simple tram

Who they are in this equation is lost on me, and I develop and build websites. For a long time, I’ve advocated principles of content first and a general de-emphasis on design. We don’t need more amazingly stunning websites. We need far simpler web experiences, that allow us to do what we want. And rather than turn everything over to some company to trust our private data, our address books, our personal surfing experience, we need to just learn how to build websites that allow a clean path of choice.

Don’t do everything for me. I can figure out what I need, if you can make clear what it is you offer.

The greatest insight I have had recently as a developer is that we don’t need to do much. We just need to get out of the way. We don’t need to provide deep hierarchical menus to allow someone to traverse our site, we need to produce our content well and allow the people who want to find our information half the chance.

So, although I can appreciate beautiful things, I cannot appreciate them when they come at a cost.

informal publishing

I’ve developed this approach to creating a healthy information space, which is really rather simple. However, for some reason, it truly confounds some people. The idea could be summed up as: don’t build a website. Do everything you can to not focus on the structure of your information.

Now, I must admit that this is kind of a trick. Being human, we love organizing and naming things. We do it as some form of innate constructivism, allowing us to synthesize our learning by building something new. Our naming and our taxonomies need not be so revolutionary, but they do need to be new to us. They are fresh constructs, and somewhere in that process of building a new information space – a new way to look at our information – we come to terms with what we’ve got. I think this theory is exactly why humans are technological system designers.

cansSo, how can I possibly be advocating for ignoring our true nature, if we’re likely to do it anyway? Well, that question points to the answer. There is no need to organize our information, because we will do it anyway. And not only those who build the information spaces. The people who use that information also build their own structures. The mind is optimized for such activities. What we need to do is focus on enabling the information we do publish to be as portable and meaningful as possible. These two qualities end up pushing us away from the traditional website model, because we need to think of every piece of information as being able to stand on its own, outside of the structure in which it sits – the website. Content shouldn’t represent part of the picture. If it needs context, it provides it inline (as hypertext) within the content. There is no reason to step out, navigate your way through a menu, to connect to some related idea. Everything you need to understand some small piece of information should be found within the content. If you can design information like this, it will reach more people.

The structure that we often try to impose on our information systems was always limited because it came from the perspective of a few people, often those with deep knowledge of a subject. This particular point of view is bound to confuse the larger issue of how to make that information useful to the most amount of people. One idea I’ve been using with clients is to remind them that not everyone is interested in all that your organization does. Our old model of building a website was rooted in the idea that we needed to entice readers/visitors to understand what we did and how our work was important to them. Then we would help the person find what they need. This is completely backwards. A better approach is to accept that someone needs some information from us. If we could deliver that before they even enter our site, we’re doing our job.

I was reading Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile. In it, she is telling a story about being at an airport and wanting to know how many friends she can bring into the United Club lounge. She uses her trusty mobile to look it up, but is redirected to a trimmed down mobile version of the United Airlines website, which has determined that asking this question is never something someone with a mobile would do. She goes on to explain how difficult it is to design for a specific context like mobile, when you make so many assumptions about how a person will use your information. The interesting part is that, not only was the mobile experience lacking, but Karen should have never had to had to do anything beyond searching for ‘how many guests can I bring into the lounge for United Club membership’. Content should be designed and fragmented so that that answer, as soon as it is conceived as a question, should be created as a meaningful piece of information. And once this is constructed, one shouldn’t have to navigate menus to find that. Internal and external searches and social networks should all link directly to the answer – the right answer. This is how we build good content.

The long and short of this is that if we focus on content first and stop worrying about the structure – which we have used for a while as a kind of directory map to our information – we afford ourselves the space to improve the quality of our content. This is the best thing we can do as content creators. And Information Architects can spend a lot more time understanding the continuously evolving structures we do build and how they can help people (through the only map we know) use language to find our way around. In the end, the language we use may be the only important way to make content findable. As for usable or useful, that may be left to a basic truth: either someone is interested or will be interested in your information, or they are not.


This is a piece I built a while back, inspired by infocamp SEA 2010


oh no. I just discovered this is broken, or rather missing. I will try to find a copy, but in the meantime, let me describe it.

It was a Javascript animation that showed two text fields. One for username, one for password. The fields automatically are filled in, and then the fields become completely black.

Access = Equality. Authentication and authorization imply inequality.

We sure do live in a weird world!