DAY TO DAY DATA: An idiot’s guide to what the open data revolution means for local government

Okay. Cards on the table. For the last 12 months I’ve been coming across geeks who have been banging on about data with a religious zeal.

You can see them wherever digital people meet-up with their Atari t-shirts and their Mash the State badges.

Internet creator Tim Berners-Lee a while back got an entire conference to chant ‘free the data!’ over and over.

Why?

What the flip is data? Why the flip should I be bothered? I’m just a local government press officer.

It was Tom Watson MP who I first heard talk about data in the summer of 2009 at the Black Country Social Media Cafe.

Gradually, after scores of conversations, blog reading and thinking it’s started to make some sense.

What has emerged to me is a picture of the potential for nothing short of a revolution. In life and by extension in local government.

What is data?

It’s information. It may be bicycle accidents. It may be crime figures. It may be the location of street lights or a leisure centre.

Pretty boring, yes?

On it’s own probably. But it starts to get really, really interesting when that information gets presented in an easily digestible way. Like on a map, say.

It gets even more interesting when several streams of information are put on the same map. It can make the world we live in look a different place.

The bicycle accidents map is a brilliant early example of how this can work.

Isn’t that only of interest to cyclists?

Yes, but that’s the whole point. It’s information – or data – that’s buried away which is fabulously interesting if you were a cyclist. You could find out where the accident blackspots were and avoid them. Or maybe campaign for something to be done about them.

The open street map is one such editable map with scores of snippets of data.

In the West Midlands, the MappaMercia project have kicked some ideas around. The gritting map of Birmingham is one example of turning data into something interactive. It plots gritting routes around the city which are treated in icy weather.

Start to make sense?

Here is a Q and A. It’s an idiot’s guide to data written by an eejit after talking and listening. It’s not a definitive. But it’s one take on what data will mean for local government.

What is data?

Data is information. Simple as that. Broadly speaking, this can be on a whole range of subjects. It could be weather data, news data, scientific data or government data. Even what time the 404A bus route runs from Cradley Heath to Walsall can be classed as data.

What about personal data?

All that stuff isn’t really of interest to enthusiasts who want to build maps and mess about with things. However, every time you use your Tesco Clubcard that data gets stored by Tesco. The supermarket giant then use that to build a picture of what lines are doing well and also a snapshot of your shopping habits.

Isn’t data available anyway?

If you are Sherlock Holmes and you look hard enough there’s a stack that could be found. But that’s just it. In the 21st century we expect more than just that information is stored in filing cabinets that may or may not be open to the public twice a year. In 430 different locations (one for every local council).

But isn’t data about bus routes and bus arrival times like, really, really boring?

To you maybe. But if you catch the 404A from Cradley Heath you’d want to know when the buses left and – here’s the nub – how reliable they were.

What is a ‘mash-up’?

This is where information has been taken and presented in a different format. On a fun level, the United Cakedom mash-up plots where cake reviews were carried out. There’s also a picture and a link to the blog that carried them.

Yes, but what does this mean for local government?

It means more transparency.

It means that people can see what is going on. It can also means that better informed decisions can be made by decision makers. That has to be good.

What would the average council officer think of making data freely available?

Frankly, they may be terrified.

Why?

If you are working at a particular coalface you may think that the information you are collecting is actually yours.

It can be sat on an officer’s hard drive and jealously guarded.

The officer may be worried at how this information plays out amongst residents. It could lead to criticism and awkward questions being asked. That’s democracy.

Why should local government officers not worry?

Frankly, many of the decisions about releasing data are being made at a very senior level in Government. More than 3,000 data sets – that’s packets of useful information – have been made available by the British Government via data.gov.uk.

Are there any amusing examples of data worry?

The Localgovcamp event in London recently heard of an example of how the Royal Mail stepped in to ask a council to stop mapping Victorian postboxes as the information ‘could be of use to terrorists’.

There was also the worry that a grit bin map could be used by grit thieves at a time of short supply.

What’s all this fuss about data.gov.uk?

This is a website for masses of data to be made available.

What sort of information can be found there?

It’s a range of public information from birth rates to accident statistics to death rates.

Isn’t data.gov.uk difficult to understand to the lay person?

Yes and no. It’s all in one place which makes a start. But the real beauty is when web developers get their hands on it and make easy to use applications like the iphone ASBOmeter that tells you where and how often anti-social behaviour orders are handed out by courts.

What about council websites? What does this mean for them?

Previously, there was effectively one door to knock on for council information. The council website. That’s changing.

As data becomes freely available anyone tech-savvy can build a website and display council data. Remember, as taxpayers it is effectively theirs.

Remember the bicycle accident site? People would be more inclined to go there rather than turn detective. See? See how it starts to work?

Do council websites do nothing then?

No, not at all. It means that as the bar has been raised to present information council web people will have to learn new skills. Interactive mapping is a must. Simply posting a pdf that won’t show up in a google search just isn’t good enough.

Is this political?

Different political parties are starting to construct policies around it. It’s not for me to comment on the rights and wrongs of those parties.

Undoubtedly, in local politics the trends and anomolies thrown up by open data will enter into the political arena.

So, this is all about big government then isn’t it?

Not really. There’s a stack of data collected by government both local and national.

There’s also a lot more which individuals create, either consciously or unconsciously. It happens every time you use the web, for example. Google checks where you are clicking so it can rank pages accordingly. When you follow someone on Twitter data is collected. Add a picture to Flickr and more gets created.

Can we go off as local government officers and build Google maps? And what about Ordnance Survey?

Err, no. No blog about the public sector and maps is complete without a line about Ordnance Survey. This is the state-owned organisation that licenses people, companies and state owned bodies, such as councils, for the right to use maps.

Open data people get really cross with OS. It’s our data, they argue.

Right now, there is a row going on between OS and Google which means that local government people can’t use Google maps. This may change in the near future.

Not heard enough? What does world wide web creator and brains behind data.gov.uk Tim Berners-Lee say about it?

There is a brilliant TED talk on data which should be required viewing. You can view it here.

During it (at about 4 minutes 30 seconds) he shows a clip of Hans Rosling using data visualisation to shatter a commonly held myth about poverty. People in non-western countries die early with big families. Right? Wrong. Not any more they don’t. He used birth and death data to create an animated chart to bring alive his argument.

The original talk by Hans is here.

This is what Tim Berners-Lee says: “Data drives a huge amount of what happens in our lives.

“I want to think of a world where everyone has put data on the web and so everything you imagine is on the web.

“I’m calling that linked data. It’s about making the world run better.”

If you were looking for a starting point, take a look at Tim Berners-Lee’s six minute film here on how that data stuff and people who knew what they were doing helped save lives in Haiti in 2010.

SIX things local government people can do:

1. Remember that data collected by local government doesn’t belong to local government. Or the officer that collected it. It belongs to residents.

2. Realise it’s going to happen anyway. It’s not your decision. Open data is often Government level.

3. Start using data to feed back into the decision making process. Maybe there is a site out there that can be used?

4. Raise the bar when presenting information on council websites. Think maps. Think RSS feed too.

5. Realise that data no matter how boring to you is madly interesting to somebody somewhere.

6. Look for data that can be made public. A map with layers to show who your councillor is, where the leisure centre is and where the library is is a start. Add past election results too.

Start to make sense now?

Creative commons credits

Data – Patrick Hoesly, Bike – Kicki, Seventies computer – AJ Mexico, Caramel – Matthew Murray, Handheld – Zach Klein, Tim Berners-Lee – Farm4Static.


7 Comments on “DAY TO DAY DATA: An idiot’s guide to what the open data revolution means for local government”

  1. Russell says:

    Thanks Dan, great piece of work – even this idiot understood it🙂

  2. Jamie says:

    Hey Dan – super read mate. Thanks very much🙂

  3. Hi Dan,

    I am glad to hear that someone besides me has had to spend quite a bit of time reading stuff and mulling it over in order to ‘get it’! This is a really nice lay introduction.

    We wrote about this is Better connected 2010 (www.socitm.net/betterconnected) and also have published some guidance / criteria for local authorities. They are available in the Web improvement and usage community at http://www.communities.idea.gov.uk in the wiki – they’re in draft form so we are welcoming any input.

    Whilst steering clear of any of the technical stuff as you have done admirably here, I would add to your list that councils need to make sure that they publish a licence on their websites that empowers people to re-publish their data – otherwise the copyrights will prevent people from legally publishing the handy mash-ups they create.

    Finally, there is a move now afoot to persuade councils to publish election results this year as ‘linked data’ using ‘RDFa’. Sorry for sounding a bit technical here, but as I understand it, it is not as difficult as you might think. RDFa is the easiest route to linked data and basically requires councils to add a little bit of extra code or ‘mark-up’ rather, into their existing web pages or templates.

    Read all about it here:
    http://countculture.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/introducing-the-open-election-project-tiny-steps-towards-opening-local-elections/

  4. danslee says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Helen that’s – as ever – a perceptive and illuminating comment with good points.

    I’ll have a chat with our web manager over the first point about copyright. For the second point, I’d heard that mentioned at localgovcamp in London but was utterly, utterly lost on the technical part. The last line of code I wrote was in 1981 and it helped some words to march across the screen thanks to a BBC microcomputer.

    I’ll pass that link on to : )

  5. Mulqueeny says:

    This is excellent! Finally I have something to point to that explains exactly what the fuss is about. Thank you. As ever, quick plug for Rewired State http://rewiredstate.org, we are running national hack the government day 2010 next Saturday 20th March at the Guardian, sign up to either hack all day – or just to come and watch what was made.

  6. Terrific post, even for me, with my very bad English. I just hope to be as eejit as you LOL. Thank you very much!!!

  7. […] movement is for open data. That’s the publishing of all public […]


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