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Saturday, 5 September 2009

NSW Public Sphere, designed along lines similar to Senator Kate Lundy’s Public Sphere forum for technologists was more focused on deliberating ways to improve the democratic process through web technologies. Held a week later at NSW Parliament House, and organised by NSW Member of the NSW Legislative Council and Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Penny Sharpe, NSW Public Sphere saw 20 experts present their slidepacks to a small audience, with more people watching over the web.

A lively commentary took place on Twitter, as it had on the other occasion. The main difference this time was the absence of chat breaks and the higher video and sound quality due to all speakers taking the rostrum in one location. A point of weakness is that the name of the speaker was not always evident and it sometimes took a tweat to clear up the matter.

With both web experts and technologists from within government departments and other state institutions a lot of ground was covered. A common theme was data availability. Mobile geek Rob Manson: “Information wants to be used.” James Dellow from Headshift: “Release the data!” Milee Joseph from Public Library Services, State Library of New South Wales, said that libraries ensure free access to information and break down barriers to information.

Lynda Summer from the Regional Communities Consultative Council helped to develop The Squawk, a social network that takes learnings from Facebook and MySpace to make a new solution to help talk about what’s happening in communities. She found it necessary to “educate the bureaucrats a bit on these ideas” but eventually got funding from Julia Gillard. Bizarrely they needed to put a geographical boundary on the project to meet funding criteria.

Tony Ritchie, Manager of Corporate Communications for the NSW Police, said that information has to be out there because people otherwise make assumptions. The police “need to be out there” because the media filters information prior to delivering it to the public.

Matthew Crozier from Banthetable agreed. He said that government has an opportunity that it cannot afford to miss. “If you don’t take advantage of the online community the risk is that you will miss out on knowing what people really think are the major issues. You need to take control of the space.”

Colin Griffith, General Manager Strategy of the Government Chief Information Office in the NSW Department of Services, Technology and Administration, highlighted another aspect of government behaviour. “You need to be able to fail,” he said. But he returned to the shared message later. He said that the NSW government is looking at achieving transparency and openness of information. “Even that’s going to be quite a journey.” Barriers to sharing within government let alone outside of government mean the problem is not mainly a technological one, but one of changing the organisational mindset.

Blogger Stilgherrian returned to the problem of governmental mindsets. “Change will mean things change,” he said, noting that there would always be quite a bit of destruction and discomfort in the process of using technology to transform a bureaucracy. People have a natural fear of change, he said, adding that employees must engage with a process in which they might lose their job.

Cassie Findlay from State Records NSW returned to the downside risk message. "Do nothing, lose everything," she said. She repeated the message of openness and accessibility touched on by other speakers. “Public information belongs to all of us.”

Damian Donnely, a representative of website TweetMP, repeated the theme of change contained in other presentations. Open discourse is a catalyst for change, he said. He also noted that it was reasonable to expect that the total traffic to Twitter in Australia is greater than traffic to all newspaper websites.

A memorable note in the forum was sounded by Premier Nathan Rees who appeared briefly to announce a new prize that would be awarded to deserving web applications. Dubbed Apps for NSW, the prize would take place over a three-month period. Prizes of $100,000 would be awarded to applications judged by an expert panel.

Rees also noted the need for greater openness, but said that overcoming old habits of secrecy and control would take years.

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