Open data: we can’t just rely on developers

Developers can’t be the only markets for open data sites – communities and individuals may need to use data in ways that developers, markets and funders don’t understand.

Charles Arthur in The Guardian’s technology blog today reposted excerpts from Tom Steinberg’s blog on the future of Data.gov, a debate elsewhere in the open data community about what could be done to make more people care about its data, and Steinberg’s view that this is entirely the wrong question.

I think that it’s only partly the wrong question. I’ve actually read TS’s original post several times and I still can’t decide whether I agree with him or not overall…

TS says:

“Data portals shouldn’t be measured on traffic and number of users”

I agree. This is never going to be of mainstream popular appeal.  However, if people don’t use data portals because they’re clunky, incomplete then it’s defeating even the most modest purpose it has. This is certainly a challenge for UK government, and something we’re talking about here in Brighton. (I have no experience of data.gov).

“Open data policy matters because it reduces barriers to people with bright ideas from creating goods and services that make the world a bit better, either socially or economically”.

I agree but with the caveat that the barriers to people with bright ideas should not include the inaccessibility of data itself, and that we need to be aware that the ‘people with bright ideas’ may not necessarily have the tech skills to use raw data.

In my view open data policy also matters because it can help communities hold government to account. I am resisting commenting here on sound-bites about armchair auditors, or discussing about whether they can ever replace the work of the Audit Commission.

We should be “fiercely focussed on enabling the next generation of entrepreneurs and story tellers to do their mass-market magic”

Hmm, this is where I start to disagree a bit more…  To my mind this begs the questions:

  • Who are the next generation of entrepreneurs and story tellers?
  • And what if they happen not to be techies?
  • Are we taking ‘mass-market magic’ literally here?
  • And why only focus on competition and profit? Of course, any product, social or commercial needs a market, but the consumer and the customer aren’t always the same.

I care about information, about open data (and opening data) and about how it can be used. However, I am not a developer, or a statistician, I would not know what to do with a 700 line spreadsheet. I’d probably print it out and make a giant pirate hat out of it.

I am a policy type who cares about social justice and believes that the voluntary and social enterprise sectors can have a central role in making communities better. Open data is a potentially really important part of this, but not if no one can use it…

Projects such as DataBridge start from the belief that data without context and without tools to use it is actually disempowering. And the conviction that there is significant potential benefit in working with the voluntary, community & social enterprise sectors to better use open data themselves. That they should be able to contribute to a local open data ecosystem, where service data, spend data and sector insight can help produce better overall information, and that all this is not going to happen without some kind of translation of the raw data and new ways of working with government.

I’m just not sure that The Market will do this.

Charles Arthur finishes with “So the question isn’t how you get more people to use data.gov. It’s how you get the right people using it. And you do that, of course, by demonstrating how useful free, open data is. Over to you, developers….”

I would completely agree with him if the ‘right people’ weren’t just developers.

This post also appears over at Dem Soc.

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