Saturday, 3 September 2011 INDEX

Red tape keeps secrets from Google
Years ago when the dominant search engine was probably Yahoo, a young upstart company emerged offering a better search engine. Its name was Google. Bloody silly name, but there you go.

The main added value it offered was the ability to include data stored in PDFs so that searching the internet became a much more rewarding experience.

In subsequent years government has felt it imperative to store much of its data online, or at least to make it appear that such data is accessible to the general public. But appearances in the case of government rarely align with reality.

Secretive and defensive authorities (the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority or LVRPA is the one I know best) learnt the Google lesson. Instead of uploading conventional PDFs that can be scanned by anyone they started converting ordinary (ASCII) text into pictures and then turning it into a document.

This does not save online space. The resulting file is very rarely significantly smaller and may be larger. What it does do, and the only conceivable motive for doing this, is turn the apparently accessible into the inaccessible.

If you get a 30 page document and there's a few words on page eight about something significant, it takes considerable effort to find it. If, and this is the usual case, there are literally dozens of similar documents, it may be more or less impossible to find the relevant item.

Search engines can not help since they can not search pictures.

Some authorities go even further. The appalling London Borough of Waltham Forest (LBWF), my local authority, sometimes forces you to view 100 page PDF document one page at a time. Trying to download it becomes a nightmare.

Whilst this might seem like sharp practice by a sassy authority that knows how to restrict information because information is power, in reality it is nothing of the sort. Authorities need people sifting through the corporate vaults, finding and exposing nonsense. Exposure of these blunders simply makes for better, cheaper, more effective government.

In my view there are far too many laws and most new laws are an abuse of power because they are not properly resourced and new laws that can not be enforced simply bring the system into disrepute, even if the laws promote apple pie, fluffiness and motherhood. But one new law I would bring in would be an amendment to the Data Protection Act to prevent any government department or local authority from posting text as pictures on the internet.

Posted by Jonathan Brind at 03:21
Saturday, 3 September 2011 INDEX