CLOSED DATA: The Problem With Open Data is Open Data People

3703575103_e11976b530_bThere is a movement that many people haven’t heard of that in theory has the power to re-shape the world you live in.

It can expose fraud, save lives and give new insight into the London blitz.

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 

Bike https://flic.kr/p/6DgMRa


GOOD IDEAS: What is a hack day? And why you should be bothered

A hack day? That’s breaking into the Pentagon computer, right?

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.

Why?

Because getting several talented people in the same room means better ideas surface.

But you simply MUST make it open for everyone. By that, I mean they must be space for non-tecky people too and I’m not sure that always happens.

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.

WHO WANTS TO NOT GET STABBED? A way of comparing how safe you are in rural and city locations.

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 the Scraperwiki event in Glasgow, this map which updates daily with planning applications to a map is worth looking at. This blog tells you how its done.

WARD MAPPER: A tool to compare and contrast vital ward data.

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.

Useful links:

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.

Hat-tip for pointing out links for this to Harry Harold of Neontribe, Janet Hughes of the London Assembly, Julia Higginbottom of Aquila and 10ml.com.

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.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.