Rosie Williams – Founder of OpenAus

Rosie (in the green dress) at the Random Hacks of Kindness Hackfest - volunteering on team Ocius.
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We’re proud to feature this interview with Rosie Williams, founder of OpenAus, who is doing some excellent work advocating for open data and transparency, while collating and presenting open data that tracks budgets, grants and tenders, political donations and entitlements and charity statistics for the public interest. Rosie does this important work as a ‘solopreneur’, working long hours in the interest of all Australians to bring open data to life in projects that are searchable for the public and cut through the spin. However, her work needs the support of the public to continue, so if you are interested in improving transparency in Australia please support her work here.

Rosie has been an activist most of her life and is now using technology to turn that desire for greater good into tools that provide ways to investigate and improve transparency in Australia.

Accustomed to thinking outside of the box, Rosie spent her former years educating her son, who studied programming at university from the age of 12, while obtaining her own degree in the social sciences. Rosie now combines these two backgrounds in technology and sociology to create tools to improve the integrity of our political system.

I think the real value in open data is in financial and political transparency. This data can only come from government and is released under open data policies for the purpose of accountability to the public.  With everything from corruption in the development application process, to parliamentary entitlements currently in the public domain, there has never been a more pressing case for tools that provide scrutiny of government spending decisions.

Could you tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

I discovered open data when I began learning database development three years ago. I wanted data licenced for use in what I expected to be a portfolio project. I discovered a dummy version of a federal budget app with incomplete dataset. I wanted to extend the functionality, complete the dataset, making it searchable with automatic totalling across all portfolios.

My project received national and international recognition and was part of the push to open the federal budget as open data for the first time in 2014-15.

In mid-2015, I decided to turn it into a small business to provide financial sustainability for my financial and political transparency projects. I believe business requirements have a lot to contribute to projects intended for the greater good as they make the creators accountable to the needs of the end users rather than government or large donors.

Can you explain your business model?

I started out with a system for collecting donations, with my code open-sourced and no paywalls, but found that the moral support I had did not translate into financial support. I have since implemented subscription paywalls in a couple of my projects, in addition to the donation options.

A lot of content is still open and free, including the original budget project and a project making parliamentary entitlements searchable by name, party and expense type. 

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next year?

Most recently I have been tracking political donations against grant and tender recipients in a project called Follow the Money. Political donations appear to be one of the hottest topics in financial transparency for Australians. I have combined political donations data from the AEC with tenders and grants data published by Commonwealth agencies to provide visualisations that chart the relationship between these datasets over time.

How do you make ideas happen?

I source issues of importance from the public through social media, identify and collect data to answer specific user needs, and design and write code from scratch to produce the results the public want to see. Lobbying of the government to release and improve data is an intrinsic part of my work and, by and large I have found the government very cooperative with my efforts.

Projects similar to mine in the United States (Open Secrets or the National Priorities Project) are run by large teams of experts with millions in grants and donations.

Projects like OpenAus are inherently complex, requiring expertise across a range of domains. Trying to get a group of people to create complex projects would be a very long process which is why I decided to do it myself. Things get done a lot faster, however there is also a hurdle in getting people to engage with it when there is only one person driving it all.

It sounds like a huge job. Have you had much support or mentoring to get your idea off the ground?

The last several months of the business were funded by New Enterprise Incentive Scheme. NEIS is intended for New Start recipients, providing income similar to New Start while a business gets off the ground. An hour of mentoring is provided every 3 months which takes the form of ensuring participants are meeting NEIS requirements.

I have sought and received suggestions in public forums that have given me ideas, however I’ve had to overcome a lot of disadvantage to get my business off the ground, including getting the message out about my important work. 

What does your typical day look like?

I usually wake and start working immediately around dawn each day over my morning coffee. I work seven days a week and most of my time is spent coding or updating data – a fairly unpleasant task. I am running several projects using open data and these have to be updated regularly. Due to the complexity of the datasets that I’m combining, this process can not be automated.

I try to find time to blog about my work so that I can promote it, however there is a struggle to find a balance between all the aspects of my business.

I have run several Twitter chats at the hashtag #openaus where I get to hear from my amazing followers about their concerns about transparency in Australia. I am currently running a survey, I coded myself as a more formal way to gather concerns about transparency and ideas people have for solutions. I hope to feed this into the current public consultation toward Australia’s first National Action Plan for Open Government.

Consulting and engaging with people is the part of my work I most enjoy. 

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

Being passed from New Start to NEIS meant that while I was on the same income, my health care card and right to travel concession stopped. This made accessing health care and public transport more expensive. Starting a business in poverty is quite difficult as you don’t have the budget for advertising.

However, the main challenge for me was underestimating how long it would take to get my work to a place where I could say it was complete and ready to launch. My business plan gave me about a month for this, which was a severe underestimation of the time it has taken to create these products, develop payment systems and engage with media.

Do you have an idea you are willing to give away for free?

Going total geek on you now, I have shared code for my statistical analysis of political donations and commonwealth tenders and grants. I hand-coded this algorithm and created the dataset from existing open data. I decided not to use it in my project as it did not measure the relationship the way I hoped it might but the code can be re-used with other more suitable data.

What other people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry in Australia at the moment?

Open data is a very new concept in Australia and the problem of making political and financial transparency projects financially sustainable is yet to be solved in this country. Australia does not have the huge philanthropic community that is present in the United States so with a very small user-base projects like mine struggle to find independent funds.

Code for Australia is an Australian branch of a movement that began in the US and sets up opportunities for a wide variety of stakeholders to come together to collaborate on making government more open and responsive. 

What about internationally then?

The National Priorities Project was established 30 years ago by friends at university and was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Price. The Sunlight Foundation and Open Secrets are other well-established and well-funded projects originating in America. The UK has also brought forth the Open Knowledge Foundation.

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change? 

I believe it is important for projects intended for the greater good to be run on a business basis. I believe that if people are not willing to part with a small amount of money in return for a service then that service has probably not been built with the end users needs in mind.

I think the real value in open data is in financial and political transparency. This data can only come from government and is released under open data policies for the purpose of accountability to the public.  With everything from corruption in the development application process, to parliamentary entitlements currently in the public domain, there has never been a more pressing case for tools that provide scrutiny of government spending decisions. Yet the media has been noticeably quiet about my most recent efforts to track the potential corruption in our political system.

Speaking of affecting social change, Is there a particular charity you’d like to support? 

With our recent focus on domestic violence, Womens Community Shelters are an excellent model demonstrating combining grassroots needs analysis with government and community funding. 

Can you name 3 Australians worth following on Twitter?

Asher Wolf provides up to date coverage of tweets from around the world on developing crises and is across all your favourite technology issues.

Melissa Sweet at Croakey (formerly a Crikey.com publication) provides insight on the relationships between social justice and health in Australia.

Amelia Loye is running the Open Government National Action Plan consultation. 

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

Yes, yes and yes!! There is only one of me and I could really do with people to donate time and skills to run a crowdfunding campaign for me. Most of the initial design and development is done but I am quite exhausted at this juncture and getting help with promotion will likely be the difference between my work continuing or not. 

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

Any of the cafes in Manly. I don’t live in Manly but it is my favourite place for a day out.

 

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