The movement is for open data. That’s the publishing of all public information.
So, that’s everything from the location of public toilets or grit bins to what suppliers a council buys toilet roll from.
Once the data is published in a format that computers can read – csv files on a spreadsheet should do it – the information can start to throw-up trends and spikes unseen by the human eye. Tim Berners-Lee gave an excellent TED talk on the subject which you can see here.
There’s a significant role it can play in creating insight that can shape communications decisions.
But the single biggest obstacle to all this is that open data people are bad – no, stratospherically bad – at communicating with non-geeks.
I’ll give you an example.
In Birmingham, there’s an informal event called Brewcamp which sees people come together at a café after hours to hear three speakers. There’s room for discussion afterwards.
A year or so back, with the coffee bought we sat down for the first speaker. This was on an aspect of open data which more than half the audience had come for. It was a pretty technical discussion of SPARQL queries and universal formats that left the converted animated and unconverted in the dark.
“Could I just say,” one baffled audience member said to the geeks at the end, “that you lot are really, really scary and I diidn’t understand a word that anyone said.”
And then hack days. That’s the process where mainly coders gather round to put their heads together to try and solve a problem by building a website or an app. Largely as a prototype. At best, this creates new ideas and approaches. At worst, it’s geeks showboating to other geeks.
I’m not remotely open data expert. I get the broad principles. I even helped the council who I was working for pioneer publishing every line of spend over £500. And no, bloggers did not act as an army armchair of auditors. I also co-founded a long defunct blog to try and share examples of where open data made a difference to tell the story. I gave up.
But the excellent BlueLightCamp event in Birmingham reminded me of the problem that the open data community have of speaking outside the coding ghetto. The people I met were all fine, passionate people. But they voiced day-to-day frustration in dealing with non-coders. Rewired State and Young Rewired State do good work in the field. And I like the look of Mark Braggins’ Open Data Aha! blog.
Nothing changes overnight.
But until enough open data geeks speak human then open data will not realise its potential.
Here’s how: tell them what the problem you faced was. Not the code problem but the actual real world problem. Then tell them what the thing was that cracked it. Then mention there’s a bit of open data under the bonnet that helped that.
The story needs to be told again and again. Not as a csv file. But in plain English.
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It washes around obstacles and travels ever forward like a stream of water running down hill. Follow the path you can end up in exciting places.
One of those ideas is about doing and then sharing.
It’s something that powers what loosely can be called the UK govcamp unconference movement.
Every New Year a couple of hundred get together one Saturday in London to plot and scheme, share ideas and kick around new ones.
It’s a powerful idea to put people in a room and leave job titles at the door.
For me, I’ve never been the same since going to localgovcamp – a UK Govcamp spin-off – back in 2009.
It made me think differently and connected me to people who were thinking differently too.
Now, there’s a whole range of such events splintering to cover such things as libraries, emergency planning and hyperlocal blogging.
For two days the centre of digital Britain was IslandGovcamp in Orkney organised at first half jokingly then quite brilliantly by Sweyn Hunter and others. It drew people from hundreds of miles away.
A question was asked if there are too many unconferences these days. My first thought is there’s not nearly enough.
But its not just about 100 people in a room. It’s about niches too.
Just last week I met up with half a dozen West Midlands public sector comms people in Coffee Lounge near New Street station in Birmingham.
People came along and were happy to talk for five minutes or so on something that they did recently that worked and for five minutes on something that could work as a collaboration.
There were some great ideas.
Jokingly called mini cake camp it worked rather well. There’s one idea in particular that we’re now working on that’s going to fly.
But what really connects all this – the big event and low level get together – is the willingness to connect and share ideas to make what you do better.
That in itself is a powerful idea.
I’ve sometimes wondered what excites me about this journey.
Spencer Wilson, a local government blogger I admire greatly, has.
I’d commend you to read the original but this is an extract:
More and more of us are becoming a part of this journey, for pleasure, for work, both; intertwined. We are going at full speed, while each of us at our own pace. We are being swept along in progressing our knowledge, often without knowing where we began or where we’re going. There are no landmarks, only the wake of others froth and bother as they speed along. All our paths cross constantly, a mass of tracks. Sometimes we collide beautifully, creating fleeting moments of shared vision, before speeding off again.
“We are making progress and yet nothing is changing”, and right there is the ultimate pondering moment, of social media, open data, new web technologies in local government. Progress is being made. I read it. I’ve seen it. I’m forever being amazed by the new ways people speak about what they’ve done and what they’re doing.
Change will come, when its ready, subtly slinking its way into everybodies conciousness. It will begin to apply itself in new ways of thinking, about how services are delivered. We will keep on going at full speed, lost in the fog, and it will be brilliant. Paths of navigation will be left in the wake for others to follow (I’ll be following), by the dreamers who dare to hurtle along, unbound by beginnings or ends or safety of landmarks.
That’s a beautiful way to describe it.
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