NBN Co’s irrational love for PDF

For a Government that criticised the former NBN Co management for not being transparent enough while in opposition, NBN Co is faring quite poorly to date under this new Government and new management… especially in the accessibility of information.

We’ve seen improvements and streamlining of metrics – moves I’m truly supportive of and commend. At the same time, however, we’re seeing a massive shift in information culture from NBN Co… and for the most part, it has left my head scratching. While I’m supportive of the publications of the weekly rollout metrics and the monthly rollout regions list, they’re both published in such a way that’s completely inaccessible and non-manipulable.

Take the 82 page long monthly rollout regions list, for example. For a list of that magnitude, NBN Co chose to publish the information in a PDF document… of all formats. If you compare this to other telecommunications providers, be-it Telstra (locally) or BT/Openreach (UK), they all use formats that make sense in the context. Long lists will always be published in an accessible format like an Excel spreadsheet or a CSV (comma-separated values) spreadsheet. The whole point of having these files is to be able to do quick filters, quick calculations and a quick understanding or overview of the rollout. But NBN Co’s illogical choice to use the PDF format defeats the whole purpose of the file. The irony in all of this is that the PDF file was exported from Microsoft Excel… yes, it was an Excel document to start with!

nbn™ publishes their weekly communities in rollout spreadsheet in PDF to annoy the shit out of people
nbn™ publishes their weekly communities in rollout spreadsheet in PDF to annoy the shit out of people

Likewise, the weekly rollout metrics is published in a PDF file – again. Having a grid of figures in a closed and inaccessible format is another layer of inconvenience deliberately designed by NBN Co for people who actually want to make use of the data. Your ordinary Australian is not going to go onto the NBN Co website to see how many premises were activated last week… that information is intended at analysts and for meeting Government objectives. But how is a PDF document of numbers a convenient format for analysts and followers of the NBN? The answer: it isn’t.

What we’re seeing from NBN Co is something quite unusual (in industry terms). On one hand, Government directives want them to be more transparent… on the other, they make it as inconvenient and as hard as possible for anyone to get anything useful out of the data they publish.

I still haven’t covered the data they’ve removed from their website, or the completely closed off spatial for network boundaries. Transparency at NBN Co can be improved so much if they just made data available to people in the format that is most logical for the intended audience… and PDF is clearly not here.

In my honest opinion, the culture of transparency has worsened at NBN Co, and I’m worried that it will only continue to deteriorate.

Senator Conroy SSCNBN

NBN hearing, now less of a cat-fight

The latest public hearing for the Select Senate Committee on the National Broadband Network convened in Canberra yesterday, and for the first time – the entire hearing seemed relatively productive and much less like a cat fight.

If you remember at the last Senate Budget Estimates hearing, the NBN Co hearing was abruptly stopped before its designated time slot had finished after the chair Senator John Williams insisted to end the session that had started earlier than scheduled.

While the makeup and the dynamics of this Select Senate Committee is vastly different from a Budget Estimates hearing, both NBN Co and the opposition senators are beginning to “give way” to one another.

NBN Co, under the leadership of 10 week new CEO Bill Morrow, has become far more open and helpful in these hearings compared with previous hearings where interim CEO Ziggy Switkowski led the way. Executives are beginning to loosen up, trying to find answers for Senators during the session rather than leaving everything “on notice”. They’re even throwing in the occasional joke for the public record. Perhaps too, the executives are beginning to settle into their roles and are being increasingly accustomed to the vigour and detail explored in these hearings – especially the questioning from Senator Conroy.

The tides are turning too, with opposition senators from both Labor and Greens recognising that Fibre to the Node has become a reality that is likely unstoppable for the near future. There appears to be a shift of questioning from continual criticism of the MTM NBN to a more technology-centric discussion about the “new” rollout technologies. Neither Conroy nor Ludlam agree with the MTM shift (they’ve simply accepted it as a fact); however, the friendlier side of both sides were definitely on show during this hearing.

Far more was learnt about the proposed product constructs for the NBN Copper Access Service (NCAS) and about the rollout trials than previously. The fact that the executives are opening up to more detailed questioning is great news.

It’s also been great to see Senator Ludlam step up his questioning for the executives. Recent appointment of Renai LeMay (founder of independent technology news site, Delimiter) as Parliamentary Business and Communications Advisor to Senator Scott Ludlam has certainly seen increased vigour in questioning by the tech-savy Greens senator who has always taken a unique perspective on questioning. I look forward to more questioning from Senator Ludlam.

Embedded below is a quick highlights reel of yesterday’s hearing:

Government launches Open Data initiative

Earlier today, the Government launched its National Map Open Data initiative — to coincide with the GovHack 2014 event starting Friday this week. The map aggregates existing Government datasets and presents it in a centralised mapping tool for viewing.

I’m glad to see that the Government is taking initiative in making this kind of geospatial data more readily available to the public for analysis. Government-geospatial data has become progressively more accessible, especially since the establishment of data.gov.au, and it looks like more and more datasets should become available into the future.

A few downfalls though —

  • Hopefully, once some licensing kinks are ironed out (with Pitney Bowes), the MyBroadband analysis fully accessible as features, not images.
  • NBN Co rollout boundaries are still unavailable

Overall, an excellent initiative — great to see the Government take an open government approach to at least some aspects of their policies. Only hope the same level of transparency is carried out across all departments *coughs* on-water matters *coughs*.