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from : http://www.flickr.com/photos/litherland/1058052964/

In August 2009 there was an open government barcamp in Wellington.

I had an interest from my previous work for the now sadly defunct theyworkforyou.co.nz; I had written a Questions for Written Answer parser for it. I ended up putting this on my own server as the idiosyncrasies of the Questions for Oral Answer  HTML consumed all of @twfynz‘s time. This provided stable URLs for written questions (they aren’t currently; this is due to the implementation of Parliament’s CMS) and was one day going to cross-link questions and drill into questioner and answerer stats. It was also faster loading and linked across where possible to theyworkforyou.

With that background, when the idea of porting WhatDoTheyKnow from a UK context to a New Zealand one came up at the barcamp, I was interested.  I was already familiar with Ruby on Rails and had experience with a port of MySociety code. As it turned out, getting the code proved somewhat difficult. At the time it was in CVS. That and bandwidth starvation meant that all we accomplished in terms of actual code that day was a “hello world” commit of a snapshot of the MySociety code into a git repository.

It was a week or so after I’d got back to Auckland that Nat Torkington got involved; he offered hosting and a domain name. The domain name was a bit of a head-scratcher:

“There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.”
Phil Karton

Going to whatdotheyknow.org.nz was a possibility, but the ambiguous emphasis made me hesitate. I fretted over it being read as: “Pfft. What do *they* know?” Ed Corkery came up with fyi.org.nz after we tossed around officialinfo.org.nz, wanttoknow.org.nz, wtk.org.nz, oia.org.nz as well as many other (far more improbable) options.

The code got disentangled from its UK context. Ways of allowing the UK to run the code in one mode and NZ to run it in another mode were put in. Yeow Kuah helpfully supplied some patches. MySociety moved to git which allowed me to get all of their history and their fixes after I’d made the original copy in August. A few performance bottlenecks got dealt with.

I’m doing this (however improbable it may sound) as my hobby; I didn’t keep a schedule. Ed kept me honest however, by adopting the position of assuming that I would do it and asking me every few days how it was going. With that there’s only a few times that you can claim that your dog ate your homework.

Rob Coup sprinkling enough magic dust to get the server working and even sending and accepting email helped change things from a few files sitting sadly on my laptop to a working site.

Nat pulled in Greer at about the same time that Ed pulled in Ludwig; after debating the merits of a designer demolition derby I instead ended up with two designers working together. That led to the current rough of their (more polished!) design being implemented.

So that’s how we got to here. Next time: where here is.

Over the last half year, Rowan Crawford has been quietly working on a New Zealand version of the UK website WhatDoTheyKnow used for filing official information requests.

The New Zealand version has been named FYI (For Your Information) and a Beta version is available here: FYI.org.nz

FYI automates the process of creating an official information request and receiving responses from the relevant public authority. Any official information received is published on the Internet for anyone to access.

There’s still a few quirks, the design and layout are under active development, and the About pages refer to the UK site, but the functionality is all there and contact details for New Zealand agencies and councils are loaded in. Rowan will add more details on FYI’s current state with a later post.

Credits

FYI is an all-volunteer effort supported by the following people and organisations:

TODO before leaving Beta

  • Update the About pages with New Zealand-specific content
  • Implement further design changes

We’ve received a contribution about restricted public access to New Zealand’s cadastral system. It’s is included below, unedited.

Free, public access to the authoritative cadastre of New Zealand has finally been thwarted by the close-down (in February 2009) of the few remaining public access points for viewing it.

There is only one authoritative national cadastre. The cadastre underpins, well, everything … and in a word … fundamental ‘rights’. Meshblocks hang on it, jurisdiction boundaries are framed by it, property boundaries of course (!). But it also provides a rich tapestry of the extent of past land use and settlment … it contributes much to our records, and culture and heritage. People have reasons to view the cadastre for private research and study, or to participate in democratic process.

The authoritative cadastre (the only one to trust) is also the spatial index to over a million survey records (official survey plan images). The publicly accessible cadastre (until Feb this year) enabled any citizen to browse the authoritative cadastre … exactly the same version that land professionals transact with … which makes it the only view to trust, and to be confident that if what you’re looking for isn’t there, then it doesn’t exist … it’s not in the official public register.

Why are citizens now denied direct viewing? Why are citizens being encouraged to access outdated, incomplete ‘copies’ (none are exact copies) of the official national cadastre?

Restore simple access to the real thing … so we’re all ‘singing from the same songbook’. The public needs to participate with the original, indefeasible view of the cadastre of New Zealand.

Quick update on Auckland City Council LGOIMA status.

Any progress with Auckland City outside the Office of the Ombudsmen complaints process seems to be thwarted due to the “Supercity” excuse: major decisions, such as on GIS data licensing and pricing, are on hold until the new city structure is in place by the end of 2010.

Practically speaking, that means major decisions are on hold until mid 2011, after the newly appointed staff settle into their restructured roles.

A long long time ago, a LGOIMA request was filed for some Auckland City GIS data. Their reply included outrageous pricing for one out-of-date dataset, which seemed to contradict the spirit, if not the letter, of LGOIMA.

That request was not pursued due to significant restructuring of the Auckland City geospatial teams over the last few months.

Some new developments have given me renewed energy to follow up on the original request:

  • Auckland City has just appointed a new Customer Manager for Geospatial
  • Northland Regional Council has begun the process of releasing GIS data under a CC-Attrib license – NRC on Koordinates
  • Whangarei District Council is testing the same CC-Attrib release process – WDC on Koordinates

Expect an update on the Auckland City angle by the end of the week.

A recipient of one of our earlier OIA requests told me last week that their team found it useful to run through the internal procedures necessary to supply geospatial data to an external recipient. Before the OIA request, their responses to geospatial data requests had been non-standardised.

Now they’re in a position to treat all requests for geospatial data as an OIA request and push them through a pre-planned response process involving appropriate management sign-off.

We made a request of the Department of Internal Affairs for the “names and addresses of the pubs and clubs in New Zealand for which a class 4 venue licence has been issued (ie the pubs and clubs that host gaming machines).” They do have an online listing facility but it would be a lengthy exercise to extract the full data from here.

http://www.dia.govt.nz/diawebsite.nsf/wpg_URL/Services-Casino-and-Non-Casino-Gaming-Funding-For-Community-Groups?OpenDocument&ExpandView

The DIA replied within 2 days pointing me to a PDF on the website that contained that information.
http://www.dia.govt.nz/Pubforms.nsf/URL/ListofVenue_31%20March%202009.pdf/$file/ListofVenue_31%20March%202009.pdf 

The DIA website has massive amounts of content and I’m still not sure if or where that file is linked to on the site.  As anyone who has tried will know extracting tabular information from a PDF is an exercise in frustration so I asked if the data was available in a simple text, html or xml format.

The DIA promptly sent through an excel spreadsheet of the data which I have published online here. Gambling List of NZ Venues March 2009

Apparently that document is not available on the DIA website but I was told that it could be requested at any time.

So… 4 stars for the DIA.

They were extremely responsive and very open with their data, I can only wish that they shared friendly file formats and linked adequately from their website.

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