At the Wellcome Trust in London more than 200 people gathered for the International Open Data conference.
David Cameron delivered a recorded message and Minister Francis Maude was there in person. So was uber-geek Tim Berners-Lee.
Arranged by the Open Knowledge Foundation This was a chance to launch the UK Government’s data set of its department’s spend over £25,000.
That’s 194,000 lines of text and £80 billion of spending. The link to it is here.
What’s the point in that? The aim is to open the Government’s books to allow residents, journalists and business a chance to have a look.
Pithily one newspaper commentator posed the question: ‘A great leap forward or masochistic folly?’
It is madness isn’t it?
Actually, no. It’s a movement supported by left and right alike which has the aim of cutting waste, allowing entrepreneurs to flourish and a fairer society.
The event may have been Whitehall focussed but there are powerful golden strands that run through all government. Local and national.
Local government has already been asked to publish items of spend over £500 under the label ‘spending transparency.’
They have until January 1 to do it and as Cameron and Maude 100 of more than 300 odd councils had published.
There is a feeling within Whitehall that some will quietly choose not to publish calculating the flak they get for not completing a slightly arcane process is less than the grief a particular financial skeleton may pose.
It’s unlikely Whitehall will allow this to pass without prompting closer inspection.
It’s also unlikely local government will not be asked to publish more as open data. There is more to come. Much more.
Here are some broad messages from the day for local government:
SO, WHAT’S THE BIG PICTURE?
Open data won’t be an easy ride for people in authority. As Francis Maude said: “It’s going to be very uncomfortable for government and local government. Media outlets will find things that will cause embarrassment.”
It’s not going to go away. It’s easy to like open data in opposition, says Maude. You can shine a light at others’ decisions. However, he pledged there were two key advocates – him and the Prime Minister.
The aim is to move influence away from the traditional centres – “information is power. This is a power shift,” says Maude, “to move the decision making away from Westminister.
It’s FOI turbo charged – It would have taken journalists years of submitting FOI requests to build up the picture revealed in the £25k data sets, the Guardian say.
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT THE PRIVATE SECTOR?
Contracts should allow for open data to be released – The presumption for contracts is transparency, says Maude.
It’ll create wealth – Open government data will create a £6 billion industry, says the Minister.
A website to point the spotlight on the private sector too – Chris Taggart has built opencorporates to shine the light at which big companies are doing well from public sector contracts.
HOW WILL ALL THIS BENEFIT GOVERNMENT – CENTRAL AND LOCAL?
Waste detection – By spotting where the waste is money will be spent better, Francis Maude says.
WHAT IS NEXT?
Historical data will be released – There will be open data from previous administrations. This will help to compare and contrast with the current era.
More public agencies will follow – There are 100,000 public bodies. There’s no timescale for these just yet.
There will be a right to data – David Cameron has pledged that people will ask and receive data for a personal and business use. This is massive for local democracy.
Open data will move from spending into crime – Expect interactive crime maps in the New Year, Maude says.
Journalists – the media needs to be data savvy. Data journalism will become more and more important, says Tim Berners-Lee.
“Chatting people up in pubs was one part of your job,” he told journalists in the room. “Poring over data and equiping yourself with the tools to look for the juicy bits will be important.
“Data journalism will be part of the future.”
Right now, local newspapers haven’t grasped what data journalism is. Don’t hold your breath just yet either.
Traditional news is emergency services calls, court and council agendas. It’s not data mining with csv files.
What may put it on the agenda are national stories re-written with a local.
Hyperlocal bloggers – many bloggers have geek tendancies that will happily work with online tools. Stories from all this will be broken by an 18-year-old rather than a laptop. That’s quite exciting. Tools such as timetric.com where graphs can be built using data and embedded in blogs can help with this.
Geeks – an inexhaustable army of geeks will pore over the data – “what happens when the flashflood of geeks go away?” mused Tim Berners-Lee. “It’s perennial.”
Industry – Data company Spikes Cavell have released spotlightonspend.org to interpret local government data. This hasn’t been without criticism from the opendata community who argue against councils dealing solely with the company and not releasing open data too.
Social entrepreneurs – Chris Taggart has built openlylocal.com as a platform for local government data and has been a pioneer in the field.
Real people – Fascinatingly, The Guardian had a team of four working for four days on the data before it was published. They didn’t think they could glean everything themselves. What they did do was make it possible for the public to use the tools to search for stories. This is the wisdom of the crowd as an extra pair of hands in the newsroom. You can download their app here.
BUT IT’S NOT ALL GOOD NEWS….
There’s no funding for people to cross check the data - As one questioner pointed out the tools that held government to account – journalists – have historically been cross subsidised by other sources such as small ads.
There’s no funding for these resources. There’s a question mark against the sustainability and effectiveness of tools.
Creative commons credits:
Tim Berners-Lee: Paul Clarke via wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee
Open data cutting edge? Like top hats, Christmas trees and giant factories the Victorians got there first.
They may not have built a chimney sweep Google death map. But their approach was similar. Collect the data. Publish it. Draw conclusions. Argue for change.
Don’t believe me?
Look at Florence Nightingale in her funny lace bonnet. Historian Dr Stephen Holliday in BBC History Magazine August 2010 writes about how she used statistics to
revolutionise the care of soldiers in the Crimean War.
By using statistics – data - she painted a picture to show a revolution in care was needed.
“When she reached Scutari the base for casualties from the Crimea,” Halliday writes, “Florence calculated that deaths from disease were seven times those arising in battle and used the campaign to campaign for better food, hygeine and clothing for the troops.”
Battered by the force of Florence’s figures and cutting edge reporting that forged the reputation of The Times the British government was forced into changes.
After the war Nightingale used her Royal connections coupled with arguments based on charts and tables to press for better standards for soldiers who even in peacetime had death rates double that of civilians.
The result? Death rates fell by 75 per cent.
Florence herself said that statistics were “the cipher by way we may read the hand of God.”
We may have lost that religious zeal but it’s an argument Tim Berners-Lee would recognise as a modern-day Florence Nightingale with a passion for data.
Did she get it right all the time?
No. Here’s the warning from history.
By misreading available data Florence Nightingale later helped kill thousands of people.
She used statistics to wrongly argue cholera was an airborne disease. It wasn’t.
It took London GP Dr John Snow to collect his own data on death rates in his patch to argue they were caused by a contaminated water supplies.
So what’s the message to today’s open data pioneers?
That first data visualisation you have in front of you may not be the whole picture.
There may be more to it.
Remember the phrase ‘lies, damn lies and official statistics?’
Statistics were once hailed as the magic cure-all that revealed a hidden truth.
It’s been said that all data in some form or other is political. Let’s not see open data similarly tainted.
Florence Nightingale -http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/cms/
BBC History Magazine August2010 http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com/issue/august-2010
Crimean War data visualisation: Wikipedia.
Cholera map: Wikipedia
Tim Berners-Lee: Paul Clarke via Wikipedia