Open data: magic from the inside out

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Open data: magic from the inside out?

Over the last week I’ve been thinking about my experience of seeing an understanding of open data emerge within Hull City Council. Having considered ‘open data’ in part 1; the need to start internally in part 2; the importance of magicians in part 3 and recent developments in Hull in part 4 this concluding post hopes to tie those threads together.

The quantity of data which we have within local government is vast. In Adam’s pitch to the developers of Hull he mentions 150-300 disparate systems within our council, most of which will produce some kind of metrics. Whilst we all want an approach to open data which means the public sector is more transparent and active citizens are able to access that data the National Audit Office has said that attempts so far have been expensive, and haven’t engaged.

Over the course of this week I’ve looked at the question from the other end. Having seen the reaction of managers when shown UpNorthAuditor I think that the case for open data can be made by going upstream to make sure internal systems and internal reports are built on a positive understanding of what data can do rather than a negative stick with which the public might beat us.

Maybe Hull has dragged its heels in comparison to other parts of the country whose open data platforms already hold a lot of information. We haven’t made a big deal out of the fact that we’re publishing everything about £1 rather than the required £500. To all appearances we’re not really that bothered about open data. We’ve certainly got a long way to go before we get close to New York’s digital roadmap. However, the work which Adam has done (under his own initiative) has influenced those who make decisions meaning that I think we’re creeping towards a position where it is internally understood and valued.

Although I’ve been talking about the importance of doing things internally (and therefore very much not ‘open’) it is with the understanding that this approach can help an organisation understand how valuable public engagement with data could be. You can’t very easily host a hack day without data and equally there is little point preparing a box of tricks unless you’re also preparing an audience to work with (my first post pointed to Tim and Will as helpfully discussing exactly this).

The clamour for open data to happen fast and furiously is fine if you’ve got organisations which understand why they might do that. In other places you’ll need a more circumspect approach that needs leadership. Maybe that leadership will come from a councillor, or an officer with clout, local developers themselves or maybe it will come from a council’s very own internal up north armchair auditor plugging away by themselves.

There is no one-size fits all approach or formula to guarantee a particular outcome. This series of posts is informed by what I’ve seen here and where that has taken my thinking. These are my conclusions about how Hull City Council, and the local community, might get the most out of our open data:

  • we need APIs on our internal stuff, apparently they should be RESTful.
  • APIs can drive reporting and visualisation. The time saving and the clarity that they provide in comparison to what’s available at the moment is like chalk and cheese
  • A better understanding of data needs to be paired with a narrative explaining what’s going on. It’s not about reporting the data but telling the story (both internally and externally)
  • with the narrative having a higher profile, and the data being easier to manipulate, can this have positive impacts on how we develop and evaluate policies?
  • we need to encourage conversations with the public. Maybe we can connect with the actively concerned citizens, could (as Will suggests) we then start being able to help them use data for themselves?
  • we still need to be moving towards publishing datasets and cataloguing APIs
  • we should want to work with local development groups, professionals, amateurs in a relational way that is open, challenging and focused on solving the important stuff.

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...