Open data: concepts

redkid absolut data by Libertic, from Flickr
redkid absolut data by Libertic, from Flickr

My time at Hull City Council has coincided with an emerging Open Data movement leading calls for greater transparency in the public sector. That has raised questions for my organisation and led to a lot of circular conversations. Recently things have started to change in a way that has got me thinking that perhaps the magic of open data is found from the inside out. Hopefully this series of posts will explain what I mean.

‘Open Data’

In some circles these two little words ‘open’ and ‘data’ have prompted much debate and discussion. Touted as making the public sector more accountable. Seen as an opportunity that excites because of tools it might make possible. But in other circles it’s an alien subject and a phrase that can be a little bit obtuse to those outside the choir.

Yes it is a phrase that means everything to the data evangelist but perhaps, as Graham suggests, it’s actually an idea that needs to die?

There is potential in opening data (and rather than reading me you’re probably better off studying the academics who have used concrete and global examples in this journal) but there is also a gap between publishing big datasets and understanding it; or making something machine-readable and it actually making a difference to Joe Bloggs. We know that data and tech can do x, y and z but we also know that that there needs to be the right combination of people in order to turn that idea into a reality (as an aside James Cattell‘s blog, The Welfare App, points to how an unconference might help make this happen).

But still so far, so good for those who are tech and opportunity savvy and that conundrum has got people thinking.

At this year’s UKGovCamp was a session called Open Data Engagement calling for the forging of greater connections with the local community to use data. And that approach is echoed by Will Perrin‘s forward strategy for open data which calls for more outreach from government to help those without geek credentials know about data and how it can be used.

Last week the National Audit Office published its report into the government’s use of open data. It was pretty damning and suggesting that the work which has taken place has no proven benefits and could actually be costing taxpayers more than it’s worth.

If ‘open data’ as a phrase is unhelpful, communities aren’t being engaged in how to use it and if the government’s approach is being criticised then is there a threat to the political will which has so far been championing this stuff? Will those resisting the move towards a world of open win? And should I stop pestering my colleagues about it?

I hope the answers to all those things is a resounding no. Tomorrow I’ll be thinking a bit more about what ‘Square One’ might look like.

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...