What the federal government does – first steps

At Govhack a small team of folks started working on the idea of visualising all the activities of the (Australian) federal government, so that as citizens we are better positioned to identify where we’d like to intervene in government processes. This post documents the progress we made.

Our work focussed on a single data file from this National Archives set – agencies.xml, which lists all the Commonwealth Agencies ever to have existed (around 7000, with around 2000 extant), along with 212 functions that they perform.

Rob Manson did some invaluable work in converting the data into more usable forms – taking out the sizeable – but sometimes empty – NOTES field, and producing various json (and plain text) files that included different combinations of data.

Here is my tagcloud of functions of the Australian government made using ManyEyes:

Tagcloud of Australian government functions

It’s an interesting array but its meaningfulness is questionable. Text is sized according to its occurrence in the data, which could mean that multiple agencies are responsible for that function, or that it has been passed around a lot from agency to agency, or simply that it has been around since Federation or before (eg, telecommunications, taxation). A smaller font could also indicate a relatively new function (eg, criminology), or one subject to terminological shifts (eg, foreign policy has become international relations). Then there are perplexing aspects of the data, such as that quarantine started in 1832 but ended in 1993 even though it remains a preferred level-two term in AGIFT – under primary industries. Hm, there are plenty of issues here.

Officially (ie, according to the Functions Thesaurus) there are only 25 top-level functions – the rest are either sub-functions or non-preferred terms. But clearly there are discrepancies between the official terminology and the actual descriptive data. Ultimately, for this project to succeed as a public map, we will need to also enable people to use other, unofficial, vernacular, folksonomic terminology as well. Has anyone ever tried tagging terms? Tag tagging – hm, there’s a concept.

Another aspect of this project is that people might identify functions that the government should be performing but is apparently not.

Rob also produced some great images, focusing on a single function and showing the complex array of agencies that perform that function. For example, here are some of the current agencies doing SCIENCE – click for the full graphic:

Commonwealth Agencies doing SCIENCE

One lesson here is obvious: Commonwealth government is amazingly complex! See also the mess of agencies performing these other functions: INDIGENOUS | EMPLOYMENT | TRANSPORT | COMMUNITY.

Finally, Brenda Moon made significant progress on her path to use Processing to visualise the agencies and functions in a spectacular array based on NYTimes 365/360 by Jer Thorp – again, click to download the full PDF:

Detail of Commonwealth Agencies array

What now?

These are all first steps, but we had fun exploring, and we’ve raised many questions and issues. As well as how to show – and enable interaction with – the dynamic relationships between agencies and their functions, incorporating date ranges, locations, and vernacular terminology, there is no doubt much else to consider.

I’m thinking, for example, about how functions themselves could be structured so that the array is more visually readable. Would it work to plot or colour them according to two axes – whether the object of the function is individual or collective, tangible or intangible? (Eg, some more individual-oriented functions include health, employment and immigration, where communications, civic infrastructure and environment are more collective. Environment and civic infrastructure are also more tangible, along with primary industries, in comparison to governance, business support and regulation, and justice administration, each of which has fairly intangible processes and products.

I’m also wondering whether the agencies.xml file is more problematic than useful as a source of functions data. Other sources of similar information might work better. AGLS is a contender, although it has not been consistently implemented across government. Maybe the AAOs that I used to make this other tagcloud are a more reliable source. At least there the frequency/size of the term corresponds to the amount of legislation passed to manage it. Or perhaps we should look at this issue another way. For example, in talking to Gordon Grace, from AGIMO, it might be possible to obtain some bulk data on what people are searching for at australia.gov.au. Possibly, whatever data forms the foundation of the array of government activities, the rest will need to be crowdsourced.

One more point to note: once the initial interface was populated and making sense, it would be good to direct users to several destinations:

  • current online material about each activity
  • contact details for the Minister currently responsible
  • historical records

So, this project seems to be growing some legs ! and I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion with all interested parties.

Going to the govhack fest

With some trepidation due to my lack of geek credentials, I have registered to attend Govhack. Keen to find out how I can contribute.

I’ve also added a project idea to the wiki, based on this idea. As a conceptual taster for how useful it might be to have a browseable overview of government activities (which you can control / explore and then use to find a pathway to web-based material that interests you) I made this Wordle tagcloud using the latest Administrative Arrangements Orders:

Tagcloud of Australian Government activitiesEven a static bundle of words gives you a sense of the range of activities the government is involved in.

Whether or not this idea takes off, I’m excited about being involved in this event. Hope to meet you there!

Cultural lessons from the crowd in the cloud

In the last couple of weeks I’ve encountered some great insight into and evidence of the potential effect of large public networks on the work of making cultural assets accessible. It has come from two separate sources – Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, but also the first ever public conversation between Wikimedia and the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives and museums).

I haven’t finished the book yet, so my focus here is on what the GLAM sector might take away from the conference (although no doubt the book is infiltrating my thinking.) The following points are not neatly sewn-up instructional lessons, and of course, people will disagree, but I believe the following are important considerations for those of us working to make cultural assets accessible online.

1. A completely different process of authorisation

I heard a lot of talk about how Wikipedia lacks authority and I heard a lot of what seemed like fear that its perceived dodginess would infect cultural institutions and jeopardise their authority. Well, for me, an almost opposite view is far more compelling.

Cultural institutions hold in their collections assets that have authority because they are original sources. No question; nothing will jeopardise that. And academic research accrues authority through the process of peer review, or by being written by someone who has accrued authority in the course of their professional career.

Wikipedia has an entirely different relationship with authority. Its articles are by definition, necessarily and absolutely not original research. And yes, Wikipedia editing is amateur. But the amazing thing is that Wikipedia articles can achieve a form of authority by virtue of the fact that the community of editors (which includes anyone who wants to be in it) finds a neutral, consensus position, and the article settles into relatively stable content. That stability is a genuine, honourable form of authority. It is not invested through credentials but emerges – and continues to emerge – out of open dialogue. And because Wikipedia gives voice to the community rather than to an individual or institution, in my view, Wikipedian authority is of great value.

I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia is the only source we need. On the contrary, it is vital to check the original sources, to seek out other sources (including primary sources!), to read critically and to adopt your own position. But Wikipedia is an excellent starting point. How many of us would deny that we regularly use it?! And the fact that Wikipedia content must be verifiable – cite and refer readers to reliable sources – positions it very well as a potential partner for cultural institutions.

2. A horde of willing and able enthusiasts

The arresting image below resides in the German Federal Archive but now – along with almost 100,000 others – it also resides in the Wikimedia Commons.

A photograph from the German National Archives via Wikimedia, June 1942 – Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-N0619-506

Jewish women with yellow star, Paris, June 1942 – from the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia – Deutsches Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F000136-0009

It’s there because Mathias Schindler negotiated a deal with the Bundesarchiv, by which the archive would release 100,000 images into the public domain, and in return, Wikipedians would help by describing the photographs and matching person data (authority files – the A-word again!) in three places – German Wikipedia, National Archive and National Library.

As an employee of a federal archive, I am acutely conscious of the scale of the work involved in description and digitisation – core tasks usually prerequisite to making cultural assets accessible. Anything with the potential to distribute this load must be worth exploring. That way, more culture can be shared more widely which is, of course, the point.

The experience of the National Library of Australia in soliciting bulk text enhancement – via its wonderful Australian Newspapers project – provides further evidence that the public can be relied upon to do a mammoth amount of good work in enhancing OCR’d microfilm.

3. More accessible doesn’t seem to mean less profitable

And importantly, evidence is amassing at the Powerhouse Museum that increasing the accessible reach of your photographs, through the Flickr Commons, has a massive impact on how many people see and tag your images, but very little effect on image sales.


In short, unlike Angelina, I came away from GLAM-wiki feeling fairly enthusiastic – like Gerard – about the possibilities for partnership.

A Government 2.0 idea – first, make all the functions visible

Senator Kate Lundy’s Public Sphere forum this week was exciting, not least because amongst all the compelling presentations, the Government 2.0 Taskforce was announced. Its role is not only to help the government navigate into the future of greater transparency and collaboration, but also to fund projects to the same end. So what might the taskforce fund? Well, here’s an idea, and a fairly fundamental, simple one at that.

Last night I watched Us Now, a film that makes a great case for how a distributed, collaborative approach can trump a top-down approach in ventures ranging from commercial money-lending to selecting players for a football team to allocating government funds. (An aside: I was struck by how accepting the model railway guys were of the crowd-sourced decision, even though it denied them any council funding. As one of them said – I’m paraphrasing – he had had his eyes opened up to all the other worthy projects, and he was satisfied that the process had been fair. Key point: transparent, collaborative decision-making is satisfying, even when you don’t get what you want.)

Because there seem to be so many areas of government policy and service that might be improved by some citizen collaboration, I started to wonder where those possibilities end. What are the limits to Government 2.0? Of course, the best way to answer that question would be to ask the people. What do you want a say in? And how?

For me, there are many potential points of intervention. My first thoughts are rather trivial – we could ban sticky labels on fruit! And rid the country of those horrid robo-loos that have taken over where public toilets used to be. But I’d also appreciate a say in more serious and complex things like immigration policy, climate change targets, and so on. No doubt there would be many other issues that I’d like to vote on, if I was offered the choice. The tricky part is knowing all the options – being aware of all the ways in which governments shape our environments, cultures and experiences.

The thing is, in order for people to answer the question ‘What do you want a say in?’ – in order for us to collectively determine the scope and limits of citizen governance – we need to be able to peruse the full set of government functions – at federal, state and local levels.

What we need is a visualisation – a view that shows us government functions as a whole and enables us to explore the component parts. Then, we could add an architecture of participation – put it to users as to what issues should be put to the people.

Actually, such a tool could be multi-purpose. Imagine if, having found a function of interest, you could see which level of government performs that function, and which agency, and how to get in touch with that agency. For me, a browsable visualisation of Australian governments has greater potential value as a directory than any ‘enhanced’ australia.gov.au search service.

How the architecture of this model of citizen governance might work is of course open, but the way forward for the visualisation part of this project seems obvious. A starting point, at least in relation to the federal government, would certainly be information from the National Archives, which has a key role in keeping governments accountable – by keeping their records – and which therefore takes a lead role in keeping government information organised. For example, it:

So, how about it? Do you share my sense that making the functions visible is a critical first step toward Government 2.0?

A Depression story in the National Archives

This post is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about findability of National Archives of Australia collection items for the 2008 Australian Society of Archivists conference. The idea is that anyone’s description of a record could be put to work in the service of findability. So the following is an example of a description, of a single page from a single file (of 220 pages) from a single series (of 13,749 files) from the National Archives collection (of around 45,000 series). (You can see why findability is an issue for us!)

The whole paper is available from the National Archives of Australia website.

In February 1934, Victor Fitzgibbon wrote a note to the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. The Department had provided him with four weeks’ work so that he could leave Canberra with his family. Having saved enough in that time to buy and recondition a truck, Mr Fitzgibbon sought a grant to register the vehicle for three months.

Grant for three months' truck registration

Victor Fitzgibbon’s request to the Department of the Interior for a grant to register his truck for three months so he could leave Canberra with his family.
National Archives of Australia: A659, 1939/1/16561

This note – the raw record – was used the same day it was written. CS Daley, the Assistant Secretary of the Civic Branch of the Department of the Interior, inserted Mr Fitzgibbon’s handwritten page into a typewriter to make his recommendation, which was to approve the grant ‘as a debit to the Alleviation of Distress, on the grounds that his continued residence in Canberra would be a greater burden to the Alleviation of Distress than the amount requested’. The Secretary of the Department must have been away, because he then added a further annotation: ‘In view of urgency, take action as proposed and resubmit for covering approval on Secretary’s return. CSD, 16.2.34′.

Another annotation suggests that the grant was issued four days later, and HC Brown, Secretary of the Department, noted his approval about a week after that.

In this first phase of the record’s life, it has served its purpose as attestation – to the need for the grant; and as documentation – of the Assistant Secretary’s recommendation for approval, and on what grounds; of the funds’ disbursal; and of the belated approval for such.

By reading the other documents in the file that relate to Mr Fitzgibbon, a fuller picture of the situation is revealed. It was the tail end of the Depression. Victor Fitzgibbon had arrived in Canberra after 1929, so he was ineligible for the rations available to other residents in similarly difficult circumstances. He was living at Ainslie married camp, with his pregnant wife and infant child. Several months prior to writing the letter described here, he had agreed to leave the Territory by mid-January if he was unable to find work. From the Department of the Interior’s point of view, the Fitzgibbon family had received special treatment up to that time, on account of the young child and Mrs Fitzgibbon’s pregnancy. In fact, one document notes that several years prior to this time, Victor Fitzgibbon’s father had been granted transport to go to Melbourne in 1929, and that he had returned ‘unannounced’ with Victor and his family.

Probably, the Department was keen to see the back of the Fitzgibbons, its sympathy having expired. The final instalment in the archival story is a small note pinned to the letter. ‘CD’ (presumably the Assistant Secretary, CS Daley) states ‘Has Fitzgerald [sic] actually left on the vehicle.’ Another hand has written ‘Please verify from police.’ A final note states ‘Fitzgibbon left Canberra Thursday last 22.2.34 – destination unknown’.

You can also see this record in Vrroom – virtual reading room.