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Hacking into Big Data - why we must

14 April 2015

Pia Waugh on open data

Pia Waugh (pictured above) is Director of Gov 2.0, Australian Chief Technology Officer, Department of Finance. A self-professed geek who believes wholeheartedly in open source software and open government, she is critical of the new Federal legislation around mandatory data retention  - “criminals and people who want to do the wrong thing will find a way to use technology to hide what they say and what they do” - but is very positive about the potential of big data to improve lives and services.

One of the winners in the 2014 Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awards, Pia is described as a free software advocate, an open government evangelist and a leader in creating diversity in technology and communications through initiatives such as GovHack.

Pia believes in Australia’s capacity for technological innovation and for germinating great ideas, but remains critical of government capacity to grasp and do something with those great ideas. (She is no more positive about the ability of Australia’s venture capitalists to “get” the ideas and do something with them.)

“We are a lot more conservative than we think we are in Australia and that’s just as true economically as anything else,” exclaims Pia, going on to note - with a measurable level of disbelief in her voice - “that government and VCs are still measuring innovation through Patents”.

“Patents,” she quips, “patently don’t work.”

She wonders, why we don’t measure innovation and investment in innovation through the ability of an idea to solve problems, and by how many spin-off business successes the idea creates, and by measuring the impact of the innovation…  

Pia has also co-founded TechGirls events for school children, and was instrumental in the government initiative to provide every child with a laptop, but she is critical of the path schools have taken with technology: “In Australia, our schools are teaching productivity skills. They don’t teach programming - how to be a creator of technology and not just a creator of stuff using technology.”

In Pia’s book, that lack of programming knowledge has not produced favourable outcomes. However, the next generation coming up has had Minecraft, and she sees them as our “saving grace”.

Minecraft allows players to build constructions out of textured cubes. Players explore, gather resources, craft worlds and spaces, and engage in combat. Any young girl or boy who plays it, Pia believes, develops the mentality they can shape the world.

“Players come to problems and approach gaps assuming they can create the answer if it’s not there because that is what the game has taught them. It’s only the older generations who assume technology shapes the world not realising that they themselves can create,” says Pia.

“The government’s one laptop per child initiative, meant students had to program. They had to maintain their computer for its life, load on antivirus software, and ensure they didn’t infect others. It was a better, more creative process,” says Pia, who believes that without the creativity of building and fixing your own technology you remain at its mercy. Pia is also a firm believer in the value of hacker culture.

She explains that Free Open Source Software culture is drawn from the hacker culture of the 1960s and 70s.

Hackers, it seems, were the free love poets of ICT. They are not what the term has come to mean in the modern media. That, says Pia, is “black hat hacking” or “cracking”.

Hacker culture, Pia continues, is creative. It led to Open Source, which in turn led to a broader free culture movement in the 1990s and 2000s with Creative Commons, Wikipedia and other online cultural commons are examples.

Add to this Open Government, which is associated with parliamentary and bureaucratic transparency - Freedom of Information and Hansard are perfect traditional examples – and it is easy to see why and where Pia’s love of Open Data and access to it comes into the mix.

Pia is responsible for the ongoing public release of data from government departments and it is this that has led to another of her initiatives: GovHack.

GovHack is an annual open data competition that connects and networks people who are interested in solving problems or creating new ideas using data. Now in its third year, GovHack has grown from a few hundred hackers getting together over a weekend to create just about anything ICT to an expected 2500 hackers in two countries (Australia and, for the first time, New Zealand) getting together in July this year for 48 hours to create ‘who knows what’.

In 2012, for example, at the first GovHack, TheOpenBudget was developed. It was built by Rob d'Apice and Robbie Wain. TheOpenBudget is a government transparency project, allowing you to easily explore where the Australian government spends your money. Following on from the success of the visualisation and application of the data, the team, says Pia, was hired by Treasury to work with it.

Something a little more general but very affecting that came out of GovHack 2014 is Show the Gap. Closing the Gap is a commitment by all Australian governments to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians. This site shows you the Gap. You answer a few questions and find out how big that gap is between you, and someone like you. (Currently available for NSW.) was created at the 2013 GovHack, and compares various ways people might die. It certainly puts in perspective the danger falling out of bed can be to your health or car collisions with stationary objects versus falling off a building: 253 people killed by car collisions with stationary objects while only 41 killed by falling off a building in 2011. (Years of potential life lost to society: Car Collisions with Stationary Objects 10,244 years vs Falling off a Building 1186 years.)

For governments (democratic governments) to remain relevant, understanding how the power gap has changed between them and the citizens they govern is vital. The internet has redistributed traditional power and the power gap has closed.

Social media, for example, says Pia, in the hands of large power players who wish to use it to influence people (be that companies or governments or whatever) is no more or less extreme than an individual, community or extremist group using it to manipulate people. The mistake we make, and governments especially do it, is to blame the tool: “If you try and control the tool you will fail because you inhibit the potential for good as well as harm. Take the car: it is a tool which can be used for crime or to get someone from point A to point B. The particular use doesn’t make the car good or bad. It’s the same with technology. What’s important to remember is that people mostly do the ‘right’ thing with the tools they have.”

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