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.
Creative commons credit
Why would normal people go to something like that?
Why stare at banks of geeks staring at laptops coding?
As a spectator sport it fails. Utterly.
But the potential of it is immense.
Because getting several talented people in the same room means better ideas surface.
A room full of geeks will come up with geek ideas.
A room full of the digitally unconnected won’t know where to start.
It’s when you put them both you are beginning to be on the road to a winner.
Although not strictly a hack day, for me this pro-am blend is why something like Local by Social works as an idea. Or CityCamp. Getting real people in the same room as techy people to come up with solutions to problems.
After attending a couple of hack days and being out of my usual comfort zone and contributing little other than cups of coffee and a few – often bad – ideas here’s a few things that struck me.
WHAT’S NEEDED FOR A HACK DAY?
Some space. Some volunteers. Some time. The internet. Some people who know about stuff. Plug sockets. Coffee. Pizza is optional.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT?
It means people actively re-using using data – or information – to produce a web application or an interesting new website. There are some that say local government shouldn’t be doing this themselves. It should be people in the open data community. I don’t buy that one. Outside the pockets of open data innovation in the country, there’s a role for local government to produce things using open data. If there are no coders in a small town or if the market hasn’t moved there, then why not?
Similarly, if there is a need to present information in a more interesting way than just a static website.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR PR?
Yet again, it’s more evidence that Comms 3.0 is upon us. That’s a subject I’ve blogged about before which you can read here. It’s more evidence that the old school press officer is not the gatekeeper to the message. But the forward thinking comms person doesn’t need to write script and eat pizza. They just need an appreciation of what’s going on. They can also contribute with ideas and inspiration.
WHAT CAN BE BUILT AT A HACK DAY?
On Twitter, Digital Birmingham’s Si Whitehouse made the point that a hack day doesn’t always need to have something working at the end of it to be a success. It’s a fair point. Sometimes it’s enough to try out a concept or a new approach that could be expanded and invested in at a later date. Or just make connections. Or create the data itself.
WHAT AREA WORKS BEST FOR A HACK DAY?
As far as I’m concerned, an area that is sitting on piles of data and is quite keen on people to come and build things with it. It’s as simple as that.
Here’s a few examples of things produced at hack days.
GO FISH: Something that makes you explore a museum archive and tell a story.
At the WAG Hack Day in West Bromwich staged by Black Country Museums the excellent Ben Proctor and others built this something useful that demonstrates it. It’s a way of pulling nine items from the collection and you building your own story about them. It’s creative. It also gets you to explore the museum’s stores.
An excellent game that uses crime and Google street view data. You can play it here. You get certain scenarios put in front of you and you get to choose which is safer. You’d be quite surprised at what the actual safe places are.
LOOQUEST: A game that directs you to nearby public toilets.
With a retro look, this hack by Neontribe is really quite wonderful and makes you smile, is a help and raises the problem of a lack of public lavs. I kept getting eaten by the toilet. You can play it here.
EDINBURGH PLANNING APP MAP: Takes planning applications and puts them on a map.
At Hackitude in Birmingham, this rather fine model to demonstrate how data from data.gov.uk can be turned from something dusty emerged. You can read the blog from Stuart Harrison here.
SO, WHAT TOOLS CAN NON-CODERS USE AS A PLATFORM FOR SOMETHING INTERESTING?
There are scores of web tools you don’t have to be a coder at. You can be like me. Someone who dabbles and explores a bit.
Here’s a list I drew-up at the Black Country Museum hack day at The Public in West Bromwich. They had history data in mind but could as well apply to other areas of local government data and as a way to engage with residents.
Flickr.com – as a place to post images from museum stores and encourage people to submit new shots.
History Pin – a brilliant interactive site that you can literally pin old pictures onto contemporary Google Streetview images.
Google Fusion Tables – A way to visually present downloaded datasets.
A WordPress blog – A place to post text, images, stories, sound files and embed old footage.
Vimeo – The full and frank exchange of views that blights YouTube comments means that Vimeo could be a better route. Especially, for oral history.
A council website – In local government, your website shouldn’t just be a static place. It can be used as an interactive thing too.
An idiots guide to open data Simple explanation of what open data is.
What is Open Data? A brilliant short film from the Open Knowledge Foundation as a primer for open data.
What is a hack day? An explanation of what a hack day does from Rewired State.
Scraperwiki A site of resources for people who know how to code.
What we’ve done. A further list of things built by Rewired State.
Creative commons credits:
Hacker with computer http://www.techshownetwork.com credit: Jochen Siegle/TechShowNetwork original image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/techshownetwork/2946209857/
Other images from my Flickr stream.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
When it comes to open data there’s a gem of a report by Deloitte Canada. ’Understanding government‘ is a belter. It’s an assessment by suits for suits of what open data can achieve. It’s worth downloading.
Think of this post as a review. It’s worth reading the whole thing but here are some bullet points. The sub-headings are mine rather than from the report.
How social media helps open data…
“The social media culture in particular is driving governments to open up while offering the imagination and expertise necessary to improve public services.
“In response, government organisations are embracing the idea that public data should be broadly available in a re-usable format and that governing should be a collaborative enterprise between government and its citizens.
Open data can help…
“The good news is that open government initiatives can help engage the public in making the difficult budgetary choices governments are grappling with.
Open data is not a threat…
“Rather than view the changing relationship between government and its stakeholders as a threat or an inconvenience ncreasingly see it as an opportunity to engage citizens, non-governmental organisations, businesses and other entities in the design of new services and the resolution of old problems.”
Open data may even have stopped the MP’s expenses scandal…
“If the UK had put its database of members’ expense re-mbursements in the public domain in the first place could the scandal have been avoided? Politicians who know that constituents are watching their activities are much more likely to be careful about how they spend public funds.”
The four benefits of open data…
- Better inform the public;
- Enhance accountability;
- Strengthen communities;
- Facilitate markets.
Make a noise about open data…
“Agencies should not quietly put data online. Rather, they should tell the public what they are doing and why, while seeking their participation and engagement. Data that sits in a file are not worth much. Information becomes powerful only as its consumers start to apply it in ways that create value.”
Let people build things…
“This form of user-driven application development, also known as crowd sourcing, user innovation or open sourcing provides governments with an unprecedented opportunity to engage citizens in unlocking the power of public data.”
What to do with user-generated content…
“Encourage users to create applications. Incorporate or adapt user-designed applications into publicly hosted sites. Seek and maintain a dialogue with apps developers. Create methods and channels for listening and responding to user demands for data.”
Don’t just let citizens analyse data. Government needs to be better at it…
“Government leaders recognise that in addition to leveraging community resources to analyse public data they must get better at analysing vast stores of public data – in addition to online resources.
“Leading governments are investing in building a core competency in data analytics.
“This involves acquiring the software tools to manipulate vast stores of public data – often provided by more than one agency – and investing in the people and processes to drive analysis and take action.”
Isn’t data a bit vast? Where do you start to look at data as government?
“Focus analytics on your core mission. Approach data analytics as a new core competency not a new tool set. Enlist key partners inside your agency. Leverage the online community.”
“In an information-driven age, the ability of governments to seize the opportunity may ultimately determine whether a government fails or succeed.”
This post was first published on the Open Data Blog.
Creative commons credits:
Accountant with a computer: LSE Library http://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/4072387390/
Geek tech http://www.flickr.com/photos/modul/4703887615/sizes/m/in/photostream/
Geek in t-shirt http://www.flickr.com/photos/zakwitnij/140788331/
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