Access to Victorian fire data

Yesterday afternoon an interesting story appeared on ZDNet Australia: “Vic Govt limited Google’s bushfire map”. I encourage you to read the full post on ZDNet Australia, but in summary, the post documents Google’s trouble in gaining access to Victorian Government data about the movement of bushfires in Victoria.

According to the post, Google has been working with the Commonwealth Fire Authority, which manages fires on private lands, to overlay the Authority’s data onto Google Maps to produce a real-time map of the locations of the fires. The map also uses a colour scheme to convey the seriousness of the fires: green (safe), yellow (controlled), orange (contained) and red (ongoing).

Naturally, this map is immensely beneficial to those in Victoria and elsewhere who are attempting to track the bushfires.

However, Google has run into some problems gaining access to data to plot fires on public lands. This data is owned and controlled by the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, and is covered by Crown copyright. As such, permission is required from the government before the data can be used, and for Google this permission has not been forthcoming. The result is that Google has been unable to plot this data onto their map.

As noted in the ZDNet Australia post, this is not the first time Google has had trouble accessing and using Australian government data. They were expressly denied permission from the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aging to overlay data from the National Public Toilet Map onto a Google Map.

Why is the government so unwilling to share its data? My guess is that there are two possible reasons. The first is that in some cases, the government has a misguided idea that data can be used to build online systems or services (usually these will be geospatial systems or services) which can be used to generate revenue by charging for access. The other is that the government is naturally risk-averse and would prefer to control their data as tightly as possible.

What the government is forgetting is that it is a representative of the people and the government-owned data has been collected using public funds. We, the Australian public, have paid for that data through our taxes and as such, we should have the benefit of that data. Surely it is most beneficial for the public if we can have ready access to that data in the most efficient and convenient way possible. And if that is through a Google Map, then the government should enable this. There can be no argument that in the face of tragedy such as the Victorian bushfires, the government should not hinder our ability to access as much information as possible about that tragedy. This includes the ability to easily track those bushfires via a Google Map.

Arguments have been made that as the access and use issue can be traced back to Crown copyright, then Crown copyright should be removed, as is the case in the United States where government data and publications are held to be in the public domain. I do not believe that this is the answer. Rather than remove Crown copyright completely, the government should be encouraged to release their material where possible under open licences such as the Creative Commons Attribution licence. This should be the default position, unless access to the material must be restricted due to privacy or national security concerns. The government must engage in a “push” model – where it systematically “pushes” its material out to the community – rather than a “pull” model – where members of the public must seek permission or lodge a Freedom Of Information request to access that material. Crown copyright can serve an important purpose, if only through the operation of the requirement of attribution (a requirement imposed through the Creative Commons licence, similar to moral rights), which requires that the author of a material (in this case, the government) to be attributed wherever the material is reproduced. The requirement of attribution for government copyright material can serve a two-fold purpose – (1) it allows the government to retain some control over the material it produces; and (2) it verifies to the public that the material has come from a reliable source.

Our research group at QUT has done some work on this area. See the auPSI website for more information.