Open data: winning?

This is part 4 in a series thinking about whether the magic of open data in local government might be found from the inside out. Part 1 considered the phrase ‘open data’ and pointed to thoughts elsewhere; part 2 suggested we prioritise internal data over external engagement; part 3 spoke of the need for magicians and now in part 4 I’d like to share why I’ve said those things


In order for the engagement around data to be meaningful we need an internal appreciation for that to be understood as more than the Tax Payers’ Alliance rifling through our accounts. It might have taken some time but it seems that within Hull City Council we’ve hit a tipping point and for us open spending data has been the catalyst.

Finish by Philo Nordlund
Finish by Philo Nordlund

Eighteen months ago I finished my part-time MSc at INLOGOV by questioning whether ‘citizen-produced’ websites could help meet the digital needs of local communities. Alongside BCCDIY, FixMyStreet and OpenlyLocal my other case study was Adrian Short‘s Armchair Auditor which I sent over to my colleague who was responsible for Freedom of Information. He loved it and, as Adrian had open-sourced the code, was eager to co-opt it in order that we might display our published data in a user-friendly and engaging way.

This proved impossible to do officially. However, because the data was public that didn’t matter. I wanted to do it but lacked the skills but fortunately Twitter had at some point connected me with my colleague Adam. I asked if he could build it, he took Adrian’s code and built UpNorthAuditor – not as an officially sanctioned piece of work but as an actively engaged citizen in his own time.

The ripples have been significant.

Before Christmas our Chief Executive launched some cross-cutting value for money groups looking at resolving some key issues. As part of this Adam and I were invited (by the man who had once been responsible for FOI and now in charge of Comms as well) to attend a meeting to discuss the need for a functional contracts register. The frustrations I heard around the table made it clear that our systems do not make it easy for managers to access the sort of contract information I had assumed would be at their fingertips.

At the follow up meeting Adam put UpNorthAuditor on a screen and you could hear scales falling from eyes and lightbulbs popping as managers who had hitherto been wrestling with Spreadsheet Server were able to suddenly make head, and tail, of their spending.

The very existence of UpNorthAuditor has changed the debate. Open data now means something real, tangible and valuable at a local level (I will never underestimate how parochial a city can be). As a result Adam has been able to have the conversations within ICT that I couldn’t make stick. And he’s also taken the opportunity to explain why it would be worth him having the opportunity to work on other systems.

Our Streetscene Services use a system called Confirm. Previously it used to take somebody a day to pull together the necessary report. It took him a few hours of development to expose his first RESTful API to produce that report on the fly. That’s where opening data starts to live up to the potential I’ve understood was there. And that’s still only scratching the surface.

Adam doesn’t want to stop with Confirm. The combination of his work with UpNorthAuditor and Confirm has given him something that is very persuasive and offered a platform for suggesting that we wrap all our systems in RESTful APIs. As I said yesterday sometimes it’s better just to let the magic be magic but Adam asked that I specifically identified them as RESTful. The simple reason for this, he said, was that APIs built in this way easier to standardise in support of both integration internally and publication externally because they are lightweight and flexible with the result that decoupling from legacy systems (oh, hai Oracle) isn’t as arduous or expensive.

On May 3rd he’s going to be talking about this at the Hull Digital Developer Meetup where people who actually understand what all that means will be in the audience:

…the Council are looking to open up their data for developers to use, and how they are looking at building APIs that are fit for purpose. Adam wants to hold a discussion with developers regarding his thinking on how the Council integrate the 150-300 disparate systems they run…

So that’s why I think we’re winning. Time will tell and there are various people who will need to make bold decisions but there’s the spark of something exciting going on. That leads me to think the magic of open data can be unlocked from the inside out as well as the outside in, and I’ve written a few more conclusions in the fifth and final part of this series.

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...