Civic Tech Monthly, April 2015

Welcome to the third edition of Civic Tech Monthly. Below you’ll find news and notes about civic tech from Australia and around the world.

Now that we’re three ports into this voyage we’d love to know what you think. If you’ve got ideas or feedback please leave a comment. You can also contribute and comment on GitHub like you can with all our projects.

If you’re the kind of person that finds this interesting then you’re sure to have friends who would too. Post the subscribe link on social media http://eepurl.com/bcE0DX and share this post.

As always a special reminder for readers in Sydney: don’t forget to sign up for the OpenAustralia Foundation Sydney Pub Meet next Tuesday. We’d love to see you there.

News and Notes

The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference 2015

mySociety hosted the first international conference on research and civic tech in March. The event focused on how we can measure the impact of civic tech, what the current research is telling us and how civic hackers can improve their projects with research. Check out the videos, slides and other resources.

Luke from the OpenAustralia Foundation team went over and gave a workshop on some of the questions that small developer teams have approaching research. Luke wrote up a blog post with some of his take-aways.

1000 entries to the Knight News Challenge

The Knight News Challenge offers journalism, media and civic engagement projects a share in $3 million to realise their proposals. The latest challenge asks “How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections?” Entries have closed but there are loads of interesting ideas to inspire a project of your own.

Members of the Poplus Federation proposed a 6 country partnership to extend YouNextMP to Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Scotland, and Minnesota. There’s also an entry in the top 45 to create ElectionLeaflets.org International, which mentions our very own ElectionLeaflets.org.au.

Right To Know is now in the ACT and on your phone

This month we’ve been making big improvements to our Freedom of Information project, Right To Know. So far you’ve only been able to request information from the Federal Government but now you’re also able to request information from the ACT Government using Right to Know. We’ve also made big changes to the design of the project so that it’s much more usable from mobiles. It should be much easier to read request exchanges and even make requests no matter what device you use.

Al Jazeera doco on civic tech and DIY open science

A 15 minute documentary about citizens in Louisiana, US getting together to collect the evidence of their environment’s health using open source tools. It’s a great example of using tech to support civic action and how simple tools can be shared and reused in different situations. In the piece you see community workshops where people make tools, collect data and discuss what they plan to do with it.

NSW Pecuniary Interest Register now transcribed and searchable

It’s popped up in every edition so far, but the efforts to improve access to NSW MP’s register of interests just keep on coming. The Guardian’s call for their readers to help transcribe the register has been answered! Nick Evershed and Todd Moore have now published the results for download and access online. Well done and thanks to everyone who got involved in the project, particularly at our #nswvotes Pub Meet where the idea emerged.

Not Just For Folks Who Code

Kate Garklavs shares reasons and ideas to get people who don’t code involved in civic hacking events. One of the highlights of our 2014 They Vote For You Hackfest was the advice of Parliamentary staff who attended and explained the path of bills through parliament.

If you’re someone who would like to be involved in civic tech projects but doesn’t code and you’re in Sydney, we’d love to see you at our monthly pub meet.

Does the data make a difference?

Working on civic tech projects often involves working with government datasets of varying quality—if you can even find them. In this post Rosie Williams details the usefulness of different datasets she’s been working with around the distribution of funding to community groups.

Free lesson plans for civic tech and citizenship in schools

The UK’s Citizenship Foundation and mySociety have twelve lesson plans for you, including interactive activities, worksheets and background materials. The lessons aim to explain why and how students should take an active role in democracy, and how they can use civic tech tools as one way to get involved.

Americans’ Views on Open Government Data

Pew Research Center have published the “first national survey that seeks to benchmark public sentiment about the government initiatives that use data to cultivate the public square.” The report covers a range of questions on how citizens think about government data including whether they think it will improve services or accountability. Peter Timmins asked if research like this is being done in Australia? Is it being done anywhere else in the world?

Fantasy Frontbench

A different perspective on exploring the positions and backgrounds of MPs developed in the lead up to the UK election. Fantasy Frontbench uses data from They Work For You and Public Whip. We’d love to see someone adapt their site to work with OpenAustralia.org.au and They Vote For You in Australia.

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Right To Know is now in the ACT

Photo of a person browsing books in the National Library

In the library by Owen Thomas

Right To Know, our Freedom of Information project, already makes requesting information under FOI super easy. So far you’ve only been able to request information from the Federal Government but now you’re also able to request information from the ACT Government using Right to Know.

This change is great for people who are interested in the goings on of our nation’s capital, and we hope it will bring enhanced transparency to the ACT Government. You can help open the ACT Government by making a request today.

We’ve added as many authorities as we could find and we think we’ve got them all. That said, if you think we are missing an authority, get in touch and we can add it for you.

There’s already been a couple of successful requests by our early testers and they’ve said the process was great, “The ACT really seem to have the right idea when it comes to FOI. Easy, quick and efficient with no cost“. Thanks to the people in the ACT Government for making this so – we hope this trend continues for all your future requests.

This is our first step in rolling out Right to Know across the entire country, and we would really love your feedback. You can always get in touch with us via email or on Twitter (@RightToKnowAu), and you can also submit any problems directly into our issue tracker.

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The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference 2015

TICTeC Logo

In late March I was lucky enough to be in London attending The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference 2015. mySociety organised this first international conference on research and civic tech and they kindly shipped me over to take part.

I had a great time. I’ve returned with heaps of questions and ideas that need more thinking and discussion. This is a quick post on a few of the things I found interesting at the conference and links where you can get more resources.

I thought the conference was a great success. It brought together all kind of civic tech makers: developers, designers, design researches, academics, larger project coordinators, public servants, funders and more. The mix produced some really interesting sessions and discussion. I’ve come away with a broader understanding of how civic tech projects can impact individuals, communities and governments.

Here’s some of the ideas that stood out to me from the presentations and discussions:

  • Measuring the impact of civic tech is difficult. Citizens are distributed and can be hard to engage, particularly those who aren’t using civic tech projects currently. Many civic tech projects have very broad goals of increasing civic engagement or action, but these concepts are hard to define. In contrast to these broad goals, much useful research focuses on quite narrow questions and contexts.
  • Attendees wanted to see more academic research produced on the impact of civic tech in more contexts and also for more design/applied research to become part of civic tech development practice. Developers and researchers need to recognise their different needs to make sure that the research produced really helps improve projects. There were stories of frustrating miscommunication between outside researchers and developers but also examples of successful partnerships designed to produce mutually beneficial results.
  • Some developers producing civic tech are already using interviews and usability testing techniques to improve their projects. Direct exposure to citizens using their work is a more effective way to make research useful to developers than research reports or personas. How can research, results and responses be part of our open source culture? In addition to sharing the results of research, teams should share the stories of how findings impacted their design decisions and changed their projects.
  • Offline projects seem to have a clearer, more immediate impact than online projects. How can the best parts of offline work be made to scale online?
  • Parliament and traditional democratic institutions are not part of many peoples’ world. Civic action can be introduced through the things people are already interested in, such as music, rather than asking them to develop a new interest or habit.
  • Measuring impact is not only useful for design, strategy and securing funding. It’s important for citizens who use civic tech. Citizens lose interest and motivation if they don’t see their actions or the project having an impact.
  • Citizens’ definitions of civic life are often locally focused and more inclusive than the traditional ‘ladder’ from petition to protest they are presented with by campaigners. The civic actions that citizens see as least effective (signing online petitions about federal issues) are the most common ways they are asked to act.
  • Trust in democratic institutions has dropped around the world over the last 50 years. Could mistrust be used to fuel engagement with civic tech?

The the videos and slide will be available online soon—keep an eye on mySociety’s page for the event. You can already get some of the slides and find out more about the presenters at the TICTeC Lanyard page and see the ongoing discussion on twitter at #TICTeC. We’ll be sure to feature the presentations in April’s Civic Tech Monthly newsletter.

A huge thanks to Rebecca Rumbul, Gemma Humphrys and mySociety for a fantastic event and for making it possible for me to attend.

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A better Right To Know on your phone

Photograph of person using the Right To Know website on an iPhone.

Using the Right To Know on a mobile today, after our changes to the design.

One in four people who visit Right To Know use a mobile device to do so. Unfortunately the site hasn’t been designed for them. They’ve been forced to zoom in on the page designed for desktop users. This made it hard to navigate, quickly understand what a page is about, and request information.

When traffic peaks on the site—when a news article links to a request for example—almost half the visitors are on phones. These high traffic requests are often important ones, so it’s a big problem that people aren’t using a site designed for their device.

Yesterday we deployed a new version of Right To Know that changes layout to suit your device. We’ve tried to keep everything as familiar as possible in this initial step. If you’re on a desktop, laptop or large tablet you shouldn’t notice any difference—but, if you’re visiting Right To Know on your phone, you should see a big difference! You can quickly move between tasks on the site using navigation designed for touch screens, clearly see page headings and sections, and read requests at a comfortable text size. We hope this is a big improvement. If you’re on your phone now you can see for yourself!

Providing a better experience for people on phones is an important part of making the information in Right To Know more accessible. For many people a smart phone is their only way to access the web.

There are still bugs and places where the site is still hard to use on a phone. You can help make Right To Know better by making reports via email to contact@righttoknow.org.au or directly into our issue tracker.

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Civic Tech Monthly, March 2015

Welcome to the second edition of Civic Tech Monthly, our selection of what’s new and interesting in the last month of Civic Tech in Australia and around the world.

Don’t forget to share this newsletter with friends and colleagues. Forward this email to them or invite them to subscribe at http://oaf.us8.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=86c7f63554037aed044df4556&id=083b3ae43e

News & Notes

Update on the fate of the Office of Australian Information Commissioner

Peter Timmins has published an update on whether or not the OAIC, the independent Federal office overseeing Freedom of Information, Privacy and information policy, will be abolished. This follows discussions at Senate Estimates in late February.

New inequality data by location on KnowYourPlace

Rosie Williams reflects on World Open Data Day and announces the new inequality data on KnowYourPlace in the always interesting Croaky Heath Blog. Rosie spoke about working on this project in our interview last month.

Quickly find video of speeches in Parliament

Some exciting news about the Federal Parliamentary website. You can now quickly find the video footage for speeches in Federal Parliament. Hansard now has a link to ‘Watch ParlView Video’ next to each transcript. It appears that only speeches since the start of 2014 have this feature so far.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have this on OpenAustralia.org.au as well?

A local They Vote For You for Redlands, QLD

Residents of Redlands, Queensland are pushing for greater transparency in local council voting. Redlands 2030, a community group publishing civic information and news for Redland locals, present a case for open local democracy and explain their council’s current position. They collated all the votes of the current councillors and are now looking for help to publish them in a more accessible form.

Help open the NSW register of MP interests

Nick Evershed and The Guardian’s datablog are enticing their NSW readers to help investigate the state’s register of pecuniary interests. They’re using technology to crowdsource transcriptions , changing the form in which this data is available to the public, to one which is open to search, scrutiny and analysis. Neither parliament nor politicians have previously shown any interest in making this data accessible and usable.

This is another exciting development following January’s #nswvotes meetup!

This nifty combination of citizens, journalists and technology fundamentally changes the power balance. It’s a blend of political story, instruction, motivation and invitation to act.

Sobanukirwa launched in Rwanda

Rwandans can now request government information through Sobanukirwa. This is the 19th international deployment of Alaveteli, the software also running Australia’s Right To Know. There’s one partially successfully request so far, for the “Health care location details for facilities in Rwanda”.

UK Parliament Digital Democracy report

The UK Parliament’s Digital Democracy Commission released Open up!, a report into how “Parliament could use digital technology to work more effectively and in a way that people expect in the modern world”. The presentation of the report is a device agnostic website with lots of video and illustration. Check out the opening Key targets and recommendations.

Changes to our PlanningAlerts API

PlanningAlerts is introducing API keys for all users of the PlanningAlerts API. From the 1st of June 2015 it will become mandatory to use an API key. Never fear, it’s easy to get started. The blog post contains the instructions you need.

Scrape javascript heavy sites using morph.io

Matthew from the OpenAustralia Foundation came up against some tricky anti-scraping technology this month (which is additionally a big accessibility problem). To overcome these blockers he added PhantomJS support to Morph.io. Now everyone can scrape javascript heavy sites, and get more structured data from the web. Go forth and scrape!

The Poplus Component Integration toolkit

Associazione Openpolis (Italy) have launched an early version of Poplus Component Integration Toolkit to help python developers mash up data from different Poplus components. The project received a Poplus Grant in 2014.

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Scraping javascript sites with morph.io

Just a quick post to let you know that it’s now possible to scrape javascript heavy sites easily using our scraping platform morph.io.

This is really useful with Microsoft .NET web sites that often use complicated states stored in javascript with links simulated via javascript posts.

Also, we recently discovered another more worrying example. The main website of the NSW Electoral commission, who oversee state elections in NSW, is “protected” by some anti-scraping technology that stops you from being able to download the contents of a web page without javascript. This is clearly terrible for accessibility and in our case for getting access to basic electoral information which is not available by any other means than scraping.

Thankfully…

phantomjs

PhantomJS is now installed for everyone using the experimental buildpack support.

PhantomJS is essentially a headless browser that you can control from your scraper using javascript or alternatively via wrapper libraries available for most major languages.

If you want to use PhantomJS but are not yet using the buildpack support, use this as a little bit of extra incentive to move over to it. All you need to do is ask us to enable it for you (letting us know which user or organisation you would like it for)

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PlanningAlerts API changes

Starting today, we’re beginning to roll out a change to the way the PlanningAlerts API works. We’re introducing API keys for all users of the API from low-volume non-commercial users to high-volume commercial users. We are making this change so that we can better measure and understand the way people are using the API as well as give us the ability to contact all API users in case of any issues (or changes we make) that might affect them.

We’re phasing in the introduction of API keys. Right now they are optional, though as a new user of the API you will be guided into using them.

On 1st of June 2015 the use of API keys will become mandatory

3 months from now on 1st of June 2015 the use of API keys will become mandatory.

This means if you are a user of the API today, you will need to move over to using API keys before 1st of June 2015. If you don’t do it by then the API will stop working for you on that date.

We’ve made it very easy for you

Thankfully, we’ve made it very easy for you to get an API key.

  1. Simply register for an account on PlanningAlerts
  2. Then visit the normal API documentation page to see your API key
  3. Update your API calls adding &key=[your key]

We recommend you don’t use the PlanningAlerts api via client-side javascript

If you use the API in client-side javascript you will obviously be sharing your api key with the world which is a very bad thing. It is your responsibility to keep the api key safe and secure. If we discover any abuse of a key (e.g. someone else is using your key) we will cancel the key and you will have to get another one.

As a result we recommend you don’t use the PlanningAlerts api via client-side javascript.

Either

  • Switch to getting the planningalerts data server-side where you won’t expose the api key
  • Or proxy the client-side requests through your own server where you add the api key

If you have any questions on how to do this, of course don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

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Civic Tech Monthly, February 2015

Sailing image by Steve Bennett, used under Creative Commons. See flickr.com/photos/63439615@N00/8000733006

Photo by Steve Bennett, used under Creative Commons

Welcome to the first edition of Civic Tech Monthly breaks champagne bottle.

Today we set sail around the world of civic tech, its peoples and their projects. Civic tech at the moment can mean ‘tech that’s all about citizens exerting and obtaining power’, as well as ‘tech that’s all about improving government services’. We’re following Tom Steinberg’s lead and including them both. We can all explore what we mean here together.

This voyage is an experiment, we’re in uncharted waters, so please jump aboard. Let us know if the links are interesting and what you think about them (better yet let everyone know on twitter). Don’t hold back if you think we’re sailing off course, if you want more—or less links, etc. .

You can also contribute to the newsletter on GitHub, like all our projects.

If you think this is interesting you’re sure to have friends who would too. Please pass on the subscribe link and make noise via the social media tubes.

For those who are able to make it, we’ll see you at the OpenAustralia Foundation Sydney Pub Meet next Tuesday.

Without further ado:

News & Notes

3 ways to keep They Vote For You tickety boo

For the past 18 months Micaela Ash has done an amazing job building up the division summaries and policies on our latest project They Vote For You—it is a vast new resource of how our laws are made. Micaela has now moved on to new, exciting work, so she left us some parting instructions on how we can keep the resource in shape. Surely there are people on this list who could take a few minutes to summarise a division once every few weeks?

Percs: searchable pecuniary interest disclosures

Following January’s #nswvotes meetup, Chris Nilsson whipped up a way to search the text of the previous very inaccessible 2013-2014 NSW Legislative Assembly Pecuniary Interest Disclosures. A huge step forward in the accessibility of this information, and there is more in the works—see the OAF Meetup’s discussion board.

Unlocking Australia’s public data: A catch up with Rosie Williams

An interview with Rosie Williams about the latest work on InfoAus, a site of ‘political and social research tools’ that make Australian government data more accessible. Rosie is currently adding new ways to access data that shows the differences in wealth and poverty across Australia.

Cuttlefish is now an official Poplus component

Cuttlefish is an easy-to-set-up transactional email server developed by OpenAustralia Foundation Founder Matthew Landauer. Last year the OpenAustralia Foundation was awarded a Poplus mini grant to create a hosted version of Cuttlefish which is freely available to the Poplus and international civic tech communities. Read Matthew’s post, Email is your secret weapon, on the Poplus blog to find out more. Now Cuttlefish has been accepted as an official component, more people will find out about and use it.

Poplus is a global federation for civic tech, developing components that can support projects everywhere. Join the Poplus maillist for updates and discussion.

Federal Government announces the Digital Transformation Office

The Government is establishing a “small team of developers, designers, researchers and content specialists working across government … to make services simpler, clearer and faster for Australian families and businesses.” It is an important project for the civic tech community to get involved with and help make it as effective as possible. You can read more about the DTO at the Communication Minister’s FAQ. The UK’s Government Digital Services have also written a blog post about the project.

Growstuff

Growstuff is ‘a community of food gardeners who are building an open source platform to help you learn about growing food, track what you plant and harvest, and swap seeds and produce with other gardeners near you.’

We love this one because it’s a practical open source project helping people grow food and community. It helps keep information held in plants and seeds open by making it easy to share. Growstuff releases the data it collects under open licenses, giving power to it’s developers as well as growing a community of gardeners. It promotes pair programming as the norm.

This is a very active project. Volunteer to help test, write for the Growstuff blog, contribute code to the application or just dig in, grow some food and share your seeds and data.

Nick Evershed injects some context into the news

After Tony Abbott apologised for saying Labor created a “holocaust” in defence industry jobs, Nick Evershed used theOpenAustralia API to provide more context about the use of the term in Parliament.

Hackfarming Blood Buddies

Jeremy Keith takes us through the process of planning, building and deploying a hack to help more people donate blood at Clearleft’s Hackfarm getaway this year.

Their 2012 Hackfarm resulted in a prototype for a personal political opinion tracker—a few people at the OpenAustralia Foundation meetup have suggested similar concepts for projects they want to work on.

Local events for International Open Data Day

This Saturday, 21st Feb, is International Open Data Day. The Open Knowledge Foundation Australia have a list of events for you. Code for Australia’s day of workshops in Sydney tomorrow caught our eye. It is a free event and registrations are still open.

Learning to contribute with Git

Contributing through the Git version control system is an important skill for people working on civic tech and open source generally—but it ain’t that easy to learn and it’s not always clear where to start. We’ve observed that it can be a barrier to people getting involved.

Once you’re rolling, it really is easier than you’d think. You’ll quickly see why it’s so popular. If you learn well with audio, try the Web Ahead Podcast’s Git episode. If video, interactive tutorials or reading works better, try one of the many useful tutorials on Github’s resources list. Once you’ve learned it you’ll have superpowers, so don’t be afraid to ask if you need help.

12 steps toward a better neighbourhood

Henare and Luke visited the Friends of Erskineville community group in Sydney last week. We introduced the group toPlanningAlerts and had a great time finding out about how they’re working to improve their area. In return we picked up this interesting list of 12 steps that they were discussing. These are practical ideas for getting engaged in your local community. Maybe these steps will spark some ideas for your next civic tech project?

Civic Hall launched in NYC

Civic Hall is an enormous space now allocated for civic tech hacking and to house civic tech organisations. If anyone is in NYC, drop in and let us know what it’s like!

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Unlocking Australia’s public data: A catch up with Rosie Williams

Photo of Rosie Williams

Rosie Williams has independently made a huge contributions to budget transparency and the accessibility of public data in Australia through her project InfoAus.

It’s been a while since we were able to catch up at the last pub meet so I sent through a few questions.

 

What are you working on at the moment? and what was the path to this point?

I am re-developing my open data project KnowYourPlace to include data visualisations of ABS SEIFA data. The idea is to provide this information on social and economic inequality to the public in ways we can interact with and make use of. KnowYourPlace is the part of my website (InfoAus) that displays political information based on geographical and political boundaries. 

I implemented the original version of this data over the Australia Day long weekend in 2013. This redevelopment is aimed at giving meaning to the data- providing visual context to the data so that users can look at the pages and see what the data means for them.

Another aspect of my work is to push the boundaries on data provided for re-use by the government which forms the basis of open data projects like those on InfoAus. For example, after speaking with the ABS last week about the information needed to filter data by federal electorate, the ABS agreed to publish electorate concordances along with locality information. Previously, federal electorate was only published with postcode information rather than suburb-level information. This is a great step forward.

With the projects I work on it is often the first time data has been presented in ways that allow grouping by political boundaries so it is only with such use-cases that the government can get the feedback that it needs to provide data in ways that provide meaningful analysis for web applications.

Why should people be interested in the ABS’s Socio-Economic Indicators For Areas data? Has that data shown you anything surprising?

The most interesting and sad thing about the SEIFA data is that the lowest percentile of socio economic localities all appear to be Indigenous communities. I got a bit of a shock when I first mapped the top and bottom percentile of advantage and saw Australia’s racial inequality so starkly illustrated.

How have you found working independently on projects?

Working independently is difficult in that I can often go for long time periods without any feedback on what I’m doing. However in the past couple of weeks I’ve really enjoyed creating original solutions to data visualisations that are entirely my own code. Being responsible for both the front and back end of my projects means I have been able to provide custom solutions for the entire project, designing visualisations that provide data in ways that have meaning and that people can interact with. Being a sociologist with coding skills has enabled me to provide this custom solution.

For people wanting to contribute to your projects, or find out more, what is the best way for them to get involved?

InfoAus and it’s projects are the result of what is now years of hands-on work and the university education that preceded them. My passion regarding inequality in Australia began with my own experience of disadvantage and through a degree in Sociology, programming and the years of work and activism that has gone into building the projects I have made real progress in improving political and budget transparency in Australia.

One of the problems facing open data projects is the difficulty in finding a way to support the people who work on them.

In order to continue working on budget/political transparency through my projects, I will have to begin earning money to support myself. I will look be looking at crowd funding and other options for the survival of my projects.

I’ve introduced Google ads to the site and I’ll be looking at doing iphone apps and marketing the databases to libraries. This will probably mean the databases will eventually be put behind a paywall.

What has impressed or interested you from the worlds of civic tech or open data recently?

The world of civic tech had a really important win last year that I became aware of in December. Grants.gov.au is a site being created by the federal government that- when available- will host information from all federal agencies on the community grants they provide. Currently, agencies publish this information in different ways, in different places with no consistency in terms of the information or format. A new specification has been developed for this grants data that requires agencies to provide the data in ways that allow it to be cross-referenced with the Portfolio Budget Statements released on budget night. This is consistent with the requests that I have made to the Department of Social Services regarding their grants funding data so I was very pleased to see it be implemented across the board.

The upshot of this is that grants funding (which will be published with geographical information) can then be matched with budget data and made searchable by geographical or political boundaries. The first implementation of this new specification made searchable by political and geographic input is part of my budget transparency project BudgetAus at http://infoaus.net/budget/social/index.php

Contacts that I work with within the government are also making in-roads in providing avenues for representatives of projects like mine to give feedback to for example, the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit which sets out the specifications for agencies to provide information in their Annual Reports. Annual Reports data have implications for budget transparency so this is an important matter to pursue. Most of this current progress in budget transparency is being ignored by the media so it is good to be have this publication in which I can report it.

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