Monday, 13 October 2008

That's not really answering the question, is it?

A basic principle of both justice and democracy is openness: Justice has to be seen to be done, and citizens of a democracy have to know what's going on in order to make informed decisions.

In fact this is so important that in Australia our only guarantee of freedom of speech is a High Court decision that any legislation which impinges against our access to, or participation in, the political process, is unconstitutional.

This principle underpins the whole concept of Freedom Of Information (FOI) laws, as well: Essentially, FOI laws give citizens the right to access government information, provided it doesn't breach another individual's privacy. Or it's under a special ministerial order. Or, they can't be fucked and they're going to charge you a quarter of a million to dig it up and photocopy it in the hope that you'll give up and go away. Or, they've managed to hide the fact that it exists at all.

Unfortunately, not all government departments appear to be aware of this. Have you ever tried to get meaningful statistics out of Queensland Health? It's a good exercise if you're ever feeling warm and fuzzy towards the government. It took me several hours to even find the right contact numbers for the statistics department who could, if they chose, charge me to type in an SQL query and email me the result.

In fact, the only Queensland government department who is really open and informative is, not surprisingly or surprisingly depending upon your attitudes, Justice.

The biggest problem with this whole openness principle, however, is just how badly people misuse or debase the power of the Internet to let them fulfill their obligations in this direction easily and cheaply. 

Take SEQWater. Once upon a time, you could find out the current south east Queensland dam levels, which are given out in the news and the newspapers and generally bandied about as a percentage of the whole, by going to their website and clicking on a nice prominent button. 

Now, if you go to their website, you click on a nice simple and easy-to-find menu bar entry, you get a much fancier system which gives you totals for each dam, a graph of each dam by percentage and a graph of each dam by total capacity (and it's a little scary to see just how much we rely on Wivenhoe), and you can even view by date. Very nice, very informative, but...

What happened to total percentage? It ain't there!

The single most meaningful and commonly used statistic to gauge the health of a fairly critical and more than a little sick component of civilisation as we know it in Queensland, and you can't get it anymore. 


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