By Josh Wright
On his blog Econometrics Beat,Canadian economist David E Giles describes the open presentation of Statistics New Zealand’s (SNZ) data online: “This isn’t just a collection of boring spreadsheets. It’s a valuable and serious piece of data research.”
He’s right—SNZ have been pioneers in maximising transparency through the open licensing of many of their datasets, which they release online through web-based applications NZ.Stat and Infoshare. While SNZ is best known to the public for their management of the census, their remit stretches beyond just this—and they use open licences on much of their data to ensure it has maximum reach.
The logic for SNZ is simple. Releasing data in an open framework helps for a range of reasons:
- it makes it easier for government agencies to work together;
- it reduces the cost of providing an existing government service, with decreased paperwork and hoops to jump through;
- it maximises access and visibility to users, attracting new customers;
- and it reduces the cost of accessing and processing information for existing users.
The Open Government Information and Data Re-use Work Programme has written up some case studies about how SNZ has released data in an open format. Given these case studies are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution licences themselves, we thought it would be good to summarise them for a wider public audience.
Census data is what most of the public know SNZ for. Through their website, SNZ has released blocks of census data from 1996, 2001, and 2006 under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licences. These datasets—which include information on age, ethnicity, income, workplace, dwelling size and geography—can be organised online and then downloaded in a variety of formats for remix and re-use.
A dedicated team works to develop Census datasets for phased release. The team is constantly looking for ways to improve: for each new census recorded, changes and improvements in the range of datasets available are made based on user feedback. While the 2011 Census was delayed because of the Christchurch earthquake, data from this year’s Census will be available from December onwards.
Economic indicators data
SNZ also release economic datasets, which detail New Zealand’s gross domestic product, consumer price index, balance of payments, and productivity—all on a quarterly basis. This data is freely available for public and business through web-based tools that aid in the preparation and formatting of datasets for open use.
Opening economic indicator data has been a great step for SNZ’s visibility and usefulness to New Zealand. Businesses, government agencies, community organisations, and research institutions use the data to direct their research and development and to inform their decision-making at all levels—making New Zealand a savvier, better-informed, and ultimately more prosperous place to live.
‘Tier 1’ statistics
These statistics, released online through SNZ’s web-based applications, describe New Zealand’s economy, environment, population, society, culture, international relations, and civil and political rights. Government, businesses, and members of the public use these statistics to make informed decisions and monitor the state and progress of New Zealand.
So—what makes them ‘Tier 1’? They are consistent, of high quality, and have integrity. This is why they are the priority for the government’s statistical production. Tier 1 statistics are optimal for public, wide use, which is why it’s important that they are published in a way that allows for equal and open access. Like the other data services, Tier 1 statistics are delivered through a broad range of formats, including in reports, as aggregate data, and (with some restrictions) as microdata.
How is it all released?
In order to actually get data from their systems into customers’ hands, SNZ use their online data tools Infoshare and NZ.Stat, which were implemented through the Making Information Freely Available programme in 2008-09. Infoshare, designed in consultation with users to facilitate open databases, was the successor to INFOS, a closed subscription system that had only 90 consistent subscribers.
SNZ’s decision to open up their data through web-based data retrieval applications has seen user numbers increase from 90 to over 100,000 in 2011-12. Not only are these web-based applications user-friendly, they allow customers to organise their data to suit them—presenting information in different formats to meet the needs of a diversity of users.
We think this is a pretty neat use of open licensing—kudos to SNZ for showing the initiative!