LIFESAVER: “Without data you’re just another person with an opinion.”

Here’s the slide I keep coming back to and have done for months.

data

W. Edwards Deming was an American engineer, statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and management consultant. His work has been acclaimed as being one of the key factors that led to the Japanese industrial boom from 1950 to 1960.

He is absolutely right. Without data you are just another person with an opinion.

During my career I’ve not always appreciated this. My career has been a struggle between thought and action. As a journalist, I was measured by action. Write the story, get the scoop. Long term planning was literally tomorrow.

But as I’m often now taking the bigger picture I see the value of data to help you calmly make decisions.

The problem with data is that it doesn’t kick the door down and demand you send out a press release. It’s dull. It’s a pile of numbers. Yet, what stories it can tell you if you spend long enough panning for it like a Klondike fontiersperson hunched over a pan rext to a running stream.

Good data can save a life.

It can tell you, as I heard today at the Association of Police Communicators conference, that abusive behaviour starts in the teenage years. So, comms has been targeted at teenagers that abusive relationships are not acceptable because the data said that’s when offenders start.

So shouldn’t you spend more time panning for data?

 

 

 

 


OPEN DATA: A warning from history

Was this the first data visualisation? Florence Nightingale uses statistical data to argue for healthcare reform for soldiers in the Crimean War.

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

Florence Nightingale - 'funny lace bonnet.'

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.

Tim Berners-Lee - 'a modern Florence Nightingale'.

Tim Berners-Lee - 'a modern Florence Nightingale'.

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.

How?

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.

The map that Dr John Snow drew to discover that cholera was a waterborne disease.

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.

LINKS

Florence Nightingale –http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/cms/

BBC History Magazine August2010 http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com/issue/august-2010

Creative Commons:

Crimean War data visualisation: Wikipedia.

Cholera map: Wikipedia

Tim Berners-Lee: Paul Clarke via Wikipedia


SPEED DATA: Ideas for local government spending transparency

Only the wisest and stupidest men never change.

Confucius said that. Only, thing was he never worked in local government.

Speed of change in open data is blisteringly fast and getting faster.

In the Spring I thought all this would be important in 12 months time. Wrong. It was important TWO months later.

Local government in the UK has been asked to publish spending over £500 line by line.

A few months back Maidenhead and Windsor Council were hailed as a shining example of how to do this.

A few months on and the shine is wearing. Yes, they deserve praise for innovation but bright people have pointed out that you can do so much more if you publish a little bit more than a handful of categories.

Change was one of the themes of a session in Birmingham by Vicky Sergeant of SOCITM and hosted by Birmingham Council on the subject of publishing spending transparency open data.

It was a chance for people to bounce ideas and was an alphabetti spaghetti of a gathering with SOCITM, LGA and LeGSB.

Will Perrin from the Local Data Panel that helps shape data.gov.uk policy delivered a clear message:

There will be no spoon feeding from on high.

Eighty per cent of problems have been solved with blog posts such as this, he says.

It’s now down to councils to be brave and stand on their own two feet.

In the words of social media pioneers: Just Flipping Do It.

The combined efforts of the groups at the meeting are likely to publish at some stage some valuable advice on how best publishing spend can be put on line. These are things that struck me in the meantime.

Here are 12 key pieces of advice I took from the day

1) Publish open data-related FOI requests. Great idea. Further research shows you’ll have to be careful about publishing personal data not just in the name and address field but also in the text of the response.

2) The size of the dataset would double if it included ALL spend.

3) You can run a programme if you are clever to remove – or redact – at source personal data from social care and children’s services data.

4) You may need to make it clear to suppliers that this change is taking place. Not all are following this whole debate. In fact, I’d be amazed if any of them are.

5) Commercial confidentiality is a grey area. As Will said, the Information Commissioner’s presumption is to publish in the public interest but there is worryingly no case law to show where this has been tested.

6) Publish a unique identifier for your authority when you are publishing open data. Finance people will know what this is. It identoifies the line of data as being from a specific council.

7) Put an email address as a first point of contact for residents queries. Maybe people don’t have to go down a 20-day Freedom of Information response route first to get an answer.

8)Set-up an Open Data Panel in your council to keep-up the pace of publication.

9) Use the licence that can be found at data.gov.uk. It’s been looked at by government lawyers. Creative Commons while great hasn’t really been tested in  law in the UK.

10) There are a lot of codes in local government finance. If you don’t know what a CIPFA BVACOP code is make friends with someone who does.

11) Don’t plough a lone furrow. As a council or an officer don’t be alone. The Communities of Practice website is an excellent place to learn and discuss.

12) Guidance maybe getting drawn-up but don’t let this stop you. The LGA, SOCITM and others are looking what would work best. Don’t wait for them, however.

13) Communications is important. You need to explain it internally as well as to elected members, residents and suppliers.

14) Getting management on board. Yes, local government is being asked to do this. Yes, a enthusiastic volunteer is still better than 10 pressed men.

15) Publish monthly. Some in the web community are baffled as to why publication can’t be done at the end of every working day. As a compromise the Local Data Panel are saying publish monthly but within a month of month end.

Ian Carbutt from the LGA made some excellent points at the meeting. He points out there are three main areas that have several sections to them.

  • What and who its for: Local authority ID code, directorate, goods and services, service department.
  • Payment details: invoices, invoice number, net amount, VAT, gross amount, date of payment.
  • Supplier: name, contract title, supplier company number or VAT reference.

Pick from those three paints a better, more complete picture and may lead to fewer FOI requests.

LINKS:

Pezholio blog on the SOCITM Birmingham local data event. A useful summary and some very useful comments.

Creative Commons

Money: Glamlife


COMMS 3.0: How open data will change the face of news and PR

Robert Peston famously spelt out the future of journalism – and PR – in a landmark Richard Todd lecture.

In a world of 24-hour multi-platform news the blog ‘is at the centre of everything I do’, he said.

His speech covered the role of the print media, TV and Twitter.

Just 12 months on and he’s out of date. Or rather, he needs rebooting slightly.

If web 1.0 was the equivalent of pinning up a digital public notice with web 2.0 we started to learn how to listen.

With web 3.0 we’ll be learning a whole new set of skills. The role of open data will be central to journalism and hand in hand as a consequence with PR. I wrote an idiots guide to it here a few months back and boy, I’m still learning.

With the open data revolution gathering pace reporters must now also be at home navigating a data store as they are on the Town Hall press benches. Press officers must do likewise.

Why? Because the avalanche of public information that will be released has the potential to sweep all before it and drown the unprepared.

Mathew Ingram, the communities editor of The Globe and Mail in Toronto, famously has said “the golden age of computer assisted reporting is at hand.”

Open Data logo

Data journalism is a phrase that will become as familiar in journalism colleges as Teeline shorthand and exam favourite The Oxdown Gazette. What is data journalism? It’s the use of apps and mash-ups to mine for news amongst released data. Isn’t that for geeks? No. Where once a council committee report would bear fruit the data set is the new news source.

Open data brings transparency and openness.

Think of it as FOI turbo charged and you’re not even close.

Hyperlocal bloggers who are at home on the web are light years ahead in the interpretation of open data compared to print journalists.

Some journalism courses understand this. The excellent Birmingham City University gets it in spades.

So where does this leave the press officer?

The fashionable thing to say is the press officer as gatekeeper will be redundant by web 2.0 and buried by web 3.0. For me, that’s hooey.

But the old-style press officer who has served time as a hack and can only write a press release is a dead man walking.

What is needed to keep pace with the information arms race are new skills.

The ability to work with or create a mash-up will become as important as having a notebook or a sharp pencil.

Will the press officer for web 3.0 be an allrounder? Definitely. Will they have to have the command of every skill? No. But the team he belongs to sure as hell collectively will have.

At the risk of sounding in years to come as a BBC Tomorows’ World clip, here is how the web 3.0 communications team needs to look:

In the days before the web the press office needs to:

  • Have basic journalism skills.
  • Know how the machinery of local government works.
  • Write a press release.
  • Work under speed to deadline.
  • Understand basic photography.
  • Understand sub-editing and page layouts.

For web 1.0 the press office also needed to:

  • Add and edit web content

For web 2.0 the press office also needs to:

  • Create podcasts
  • Create and add content to a Facebook page.
  • Create and add content to a Twitter stream.
  • Create and add content to Flickr.
  • Create and add content to a blog.
  • Monitor and keep abreast of news in all the form it takes from print to TV, radio and the blogosphere.
  • Develop relationships with bloggers.
  • Go where the conversation is whether that be online or in print.
  • Be ready to respond out-of-hours because the internet does not recognise a print deadline.

For web 3.0 the press office will also need to:

  • Create and edit geotagged data such as a Google map.
  • Create a data set.
  • Use an app and a mash-up.
  • Use basic html.
  • Blog to challenge the mis-interpretation of data.

But with web 3.0 upon us and the pace of change growing faster to stay relevant the comms team has to change.

Data journalism links

What is data journalism? A good introductory piece from The Guardian..

Mapped: the UK’s road cycling hotspot A mash-up of accident data by The Times.

Oil and Gas Chief Execs Are They Worth It? Lovely Financial Times data visualisation – needs a sign-up.

Is It Better To Rent Or Buy? New York Times data visualisation.

How to guides

What is a mash-up? Great advice from the BCU journalism lecturer Paul Bradshaw.

Creative Commons credits:

Open Data logo

Mobile phone


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.