Open data: Square One

In Part 1 of this series, I considered the phrase ‘open data’ and pointed to thoughts elsewhere about whether it’s an unhelpful phrase, how communities are engaged to use it and how the government approach has been judged thus far. Today, I’m wondering about Square One.

Square One

It is great that the focus around ‘open data’ may be shifting away from simply getting us compliant and pushing data out to instead think about how engagement can be structured around its use. It’s also brilliant to see twitter buzzing about Saturday’s National Hack The Government Day which wouldn’t have been possible without the data that is there already.

I have no doubt at all that the public sector as a whole is sitting on a goldmine of information that can help make democracy flow and services perform better. But I think there’s a danger of being excited about the cart to the forgetting of its horses.

Encouraging the meaningful use of data – whether that’s to empower the public to challenge or a public entity preferring ‘citizen produced’ effort over something built in-house – requires the humility to accept we don’t hold all the answers. And humility can be hard to come by.

Untitled by rachel a. k. on Flickr
Untitled by rachel a. k. on Flickr

Therefore, before we can think about inspiring the public with open data or enjoy the full benefits of what someone might do with it then I think for us Square One, is a bit counter intuitive. I think where we need to start is in unlocking the data potential within our organisations.

Rather than approaching open data as that thing we do at the end of a process we need to  look for opportunities to exploit and reuse raw data as far upstream as possible. Not only will that make it easier for eventual publication to become part of business as usual (and not an expensive additional activity) but embedding something into an organisation will hopefully mean that the story of data can be better understood (which would help to encourage engagement and reuse). Most importantly of all though I think we’ll start to see benefits to the way we work and therefore in the services we offer.

Personally I love to hear about the disruptive success of citizen activism that takes something which isn’t working well and delivers something to meet that need. I can’t be anything other than impressed when I see dissatisfaction bringing people together to collaborate.* But I’ve learnt that sometimes where I see fruit plenty of others will see threat.

In fact for some the reuse of data may well entrench negative attitudes about the dangers inherent with being engaged with the public, especially about our data and our processes. Conversations that start at the point of making data public and pointing out how this authority or that authority are ‘better’ doesn’t make many friends. Show those same people the power of data (which may one day be open) in the context of their internal processes or legacy systems then maybe the external benefits wouldn’t seem quite so scary (I think there’s a lot to be said for cherishing an internal wall or two).

So, despite it appearing to be the antithesis of open I think our Square One needs to be how we’re using raw data inside our organisations to help us find the humility that will mean we can be truly engaging when we make it public.

But to use that data might need a bit of magic so tomorrow I’m going to be thinking about wizards.


*Edit 26th April: the Hull Daily Mail reported this story about about Hull council tenants using Facebook to arrange their own swaps because the local authority offering didn’t meet their needs. It’s a timely reminder that social media platforms mean people are able to develop their own solutions which just work and that disrupt what’s already present without the need for extensive development skill.

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...