OPEN FLOODGATES: What publishing Whitehall data means for local government

As one wag said: “A Prime Minister addressing a room full of geeks about open data? I’ve waited years for this.”

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?

Tim Berners-Lee.

Tim Berners-Lee.

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.

Walsall Council House.

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.

Expect better decision making on spending – “Once you know you are being scrutinised you’ll be more careful. MP knows this all to well,” Maude says.

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.

Procurement needs to get its act together – know what is in the contract before you sign a deal since the detail what it will purchase will be closely monitored, the Minister 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.

SO, WHO WILL BE LOOKING THROUGH THIS DATA?

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

Hand: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davedugdale/5099605109/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Parliament: http://www.flickr.com/photos/olastuen/3784184031/sizes/o/in/photostream/