DataBridge Fridays #1

Today is the first of my DataBridge Fridays, my regular day at the OCSI offices in sunny Brighton, where we’ve been bashing out the details of how we think DataBridge will work.

With the back drop of tweeted news about the local election results and accompanied by quantities of Earl Grey, we have spent some quality time going through the detail of what we want to offer with DataBridge.

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Graham (left) and Tom at OCSI’s tidy and organised offices.

So, here’s where we’re up to at the end of my first DataBridge Friday:

This pilot is running on a zero budget – but we’re not seeing this as a problem!  Tom has committed 10 free days of OCSI analyst time to the project and I am giving a day or two a week in project management, liaising with the groups and CVS Forum, examining the links with Brighton & Hove’s Intelligent Commissioning programme and their city-wide data work. The CVS Forum is supporting the project too and their Policy & Research Manager, Emma, has been a fount of excellent advice so far.

Emma, Tom and I have been speaking about the groups we should approach to be involved in the pilot.  The criteria we’ve come up with between us are:

  • 1-2 larger organisations that provide a range of services, have more than one contract with local government (council, health, police)
  • 1-2 medium sized organisations, perhaps focused on a narrower service or group of people
  • 1-2 small, user-led organisations
  • Groups who have a commitment to the quality of their own information, want to use it more effectively and want to help improve the way we use data in Brighton & Hove.
  • Groups who are able to put in approx 3-5 days time of a suitable person during May, June & July
  • Groups who are happy for this piece of work to be very open, collaborative, to blog and be blogged about, to be used as case studies in the evaluation and in conversations nationally about open data, for the reports produced as part of the project to be shared.
  • Groups who sit comfortably (even if not directly) under the themes for the next Intelligent Commissioning round.

For all of the groups involved we will be able to provide:

  • a 1:1 assessment of the groups’ use of data for fundraising, advocacy, evidence of impact, influencing & policy work.
  • advice on next steps on how to develop their work and capacity, and where to go for further resources and support,
  • a link into a local network and any ongoing support from the Forum

With about 3 (probably) of the groups OCSI will be able to go into much greater detail and provide a detailed report using the groups’ own data, existing published datasets and, potentially, relevant datasets provided to us by the local authority. This will be followed up with a feedback session showing ‘the workings’ – how the report was constructed and how it can be replicated. Wider sharing of learning and evaluation will follow this.

Next week looks like it will be about starting to talk to the groups, refining the details of this offer after hearing what they have to say; talking to Brighton Council about BHLIS (Brighton & Hove Local Information Service) and doing more work on the project plan and researching the baseline questionnaire.

This post originally appeared on http://www.databridge.org.uk

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A Royally Republican Breakfast

I am currently watching the Royal Wedding while joining Republic, who campaign for a democratic alternative to the monarchy. It’s time that we had a sensible debate about the constitutional role of the monarchy.

Yes, this particular breakfast activity does seem like a contradiction, but, well, apart from being basically very nosy and partial to the historical appeal of the pomp and ceremony, I think it’s an important chance to start a much wider national conversation about the role of inherited privilege in our politics.

I ‘met’ the Queen once, when she came to Cabinet Office to thank us for doing a good job during the Coalition negotiations. Again, it was pure nosiness that made me go and stand in line with my colleagues as she walked past smiling and nodding at us.  She actually does have a kind of aura about her, a sort of shimmer, even though the only jewellery she wore was a diamond broach the size of a satsuma.

However, for me, it’s clear that the Queen is the last of a certain type of monarch who have this regality, sense of duty and discipline. From Charles downwards they very much have feet, if not complete lower limbs, of clay. It seems unlikely that he would be able to go from being so outspoken on many subjects to maintaining the kind of distance and neutrality the Queen at least appears to be able to.

I actually don’t have a very firm view yet on what the democratic alternative to the monarchy ought to be, and could accept that there could be a ceremonial role for them, along the Danish or Spanish models. The most important thing is that we actually have a national conversation about this.

While I am sneakily interested in what’s going on today, the media’s blanket coverage is rather wearing. Poor old Sian Williams was yesterday standing in front of a man sweeping up horse droppings outside an empty Westminster Abbey trying to find something, anything, to say.

It is all quite sycophantic though, and Republic has a thing called BBC Watch which encourages people to help the organisation show whether the coverage is biased in favour of the monarchy, in the belief that this stifles proper debate about any alternatives.

As they say: “[We want] the best democracy we can create, a democracy that genuinely puts you, us, in charge. Our children should be inspired to believe they can achieve anything they want and our democracy should encourage that sense of aspiration. We should all be encouraged to take responsibility for our own political affairs, and our democracy should embody that responsibility.

This post also appears at demsoc.org

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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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Whose Localism?

Last week at Voice ’11 I listened to a debate entitled ‘Localism: can citizens deliver a future for our neighbourhoods?’ in which chair Lucy Siegle asked the more specific question “are citizens the best people to manage the resources and services in their neighbourhoods”. A show of audience hands found a slim majority in the positive at the start, with two enthusiastic abstainers sitting behind me.

Panelists were Ed Mayo (Cooperatives UK), Jan Tallis (School Home Support), Simon Parker (New Local Government Network) and Jeremy Crook (BTEG). Their arguments can be crudely summed up as:

  • Yes, when people have the chance to come together to do something for their community, they do (Ed)
  • No, there are too many equality and access issues that mean the state has to be an arbiter (Jan)
  • Yes, centralism hasn’t worked and localism forces us to look at more innovative ways of doing things (Simon)
  • No, impact of cuts on voluntary undermines the potential of localism and the state has a role in ensuring localism is not just the preserve of the white middle class (Jeremy)

I was particularly interested in some of Simon’s comments around the need for Local Government to become as good at managing its social assets as it is a managing physical ones.  I agree that there is a very important role for local government in nurturing and supporting social action locally, and of course many councils do imaginative work and are committed to long term community development projects. Equally, these are under threat from desperate local finances, but they really do fall into the ‘can you afford not to do it?’ category.

In January a NLGN think piece set out three priorities for local government: cut costs, get finances on to a stable footing, renegotiate the social contract with communities. I would argue that the last of these needs to be considered as part of the first two, and that Localism thinking should not stop at the town hall – it should continue out into communities. This brings us back to the point about equalities and accessibility of localism.

I asked the panel whether the two ‘Noes’ felt that the acknowledged equality and access issues meant that greater localism should not be tried, and what they thought could be done to support the widest possible participation in local democratic conversations. Responses included the duty of statutory bodies to be aware of all their citizens (a duty with a small ‘d’ rather than a capital ‘D’, I think); the Equality Duty; the role of councillors to challenge and act as champions for their whole constituency; the importance of equality organisations to act as a voice on race, gender locally, and general assertions that there are ‘a suite of things that Councils can do’.

The public sector Equality Duty comes into force tomorrow. According to GEO “The requirements of the duty are essentially what any well-run organisation would want to do – to meet the needs of those who work for it and use its services.  The duty requires public authorities to have regard to the need to tackle discrimination and promote equal opportunities. When designing and delivering their services, they should consider how they can make them fair for everyone”. How this could be used by councils and social activists to encourage greater support and a broader audience for engagement activities will be really interesting stuff.

The panel also asserted that Councillors need more engagement with communities, and need to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their role in building communities. One final observation that caught my ear was the plea to link spend data with service delivery data – this will be a big challenge, but one that will have a big prize. More detailed understanding of how services are delivered and their impact will be really important in making smart spending decisions in the future.

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1500 Voices

The biggest Voice 11 so far took place yesterday in the chilly surrounds of the O2 and the enthusiasm and openness of the delegates was only slightly marred by the temperature, thanks to copious amounts of free coffee from The People’s Food Company.

So, it was a lively, inspiring, useful and fun day, as always provided by SEC , but from a policy point of view what did we learn?  Well, the government still thinks that social enterprise is great and that they want more social enterprises to be able to run public services. Beyond that, I’m afraid we’re not really much the wiser.

The Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley spoke early on. His speech and announcement on the Right to Provide – allowing any group in the NHS to spin out to form a social enterprise or mutual – was trailed beforehand. The extra £10m for the Social Enterprise Investment Fund seemed new, though there’s no word about it on the websites of either DH or The Social Investment Fund.

He continued by hailing social enterprise as a cure for the maladies of the NHS and predicted that 10% of community health services would be delivered by social enterprises.  The only real policy detail was his statement that ‘we will not give preference to incumbent NHS providers’ and refining the position on any willing provider to ‘any qualified provider’. As always, the devil will be in the detail and in this case, in the getting qualified.  This will not be as easy as it might seem, given all the issues about procurement that we’ve been grappling with for years and the emergence of GP commissioning consortia who will be entirely new to this. Office for Civil Society’s National Programme for Commissioning will have useful lessons here. Sadly, Cabinet Office’s website is so rubbish I can’t link to anything useful.

I have to confess that I did not listen to the speech of my former boss, Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, choosing instead to hear David Fairhurst of Mutual Ventures and Miaa Chambers of P3 talking about commissioning for social value. Miia was good value, as always, and made good points about the responsibility of charities to be market shapers, and the importance of collaborating with larger providers. I also took part in an interesting panel discussion on Localism – but more on this later, I hope.

The SoS for Business, Dr Vince Cable, provided the closing address, and, I’m afraid, looked pretty disgruntled with his lot. He did not cover himself in glory in his speech which seemed to consist solely of a list of organisational forms a social enterprise could chose (missing out Company Limited by Guarantee, the most common legal form for social enterprises), and getting his facts wrong on the Big Society Bank. He was game enough, though, to pose for a photo with a group of young social entrepreneurs who showed their enterprising spirit by using their question to ask whether he wanted to buy one of their eco-bird feeders. I wish I could find the photo – please let me know if you have!

The only question for Vince Cable that got a round of applause from the audience was ‘Why is social enterprise located in Office for Civil Society not in BIS?’.  My own view is that this is a bit naïve, there is no way that social enterprise would have the Ministerial attention and internal profile within BIS as is does in Cabinet Office. The number of other massively high profile projects and powerful stakeholder would squeeze any good intentions to nothing.

So while the Start Your…, Grow Your…, Move to…, and Young… Social Enterprise zones provided an excellent range of practical sessions for those wanting to learning more about the day to day stuff (and I went to a really useful session by Uday Thakkar of Red Ochre and Tokunbo Ajasa-Oluwa of Catch 22 Magazine), and the social enterprise movement is never short on vision and inspiration, we’re still lacking detail of exactly how the government intends to support social enterprise in achieving its ambitions in health care and in ‘doing business with government’ more generally.

The challenge for Peter Holbrook, Claire Dove and others – including POPse! a pop up think tank on social enterprise policy running in May – is to push government further on putting flesh on these bones.

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5 things I’ve learned

At the end of my first week since leaving the civil service, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned in my time in central government. Hopefully without breaching any rules or code of conduct, I think the top 5 things are:

  1. Central government is a massive machine that looks from the outside like it moves very slowly. On the inside it is moving at a hundred miles an hour with many, many people to engage with, processes to go through and approvals to get. When it’s working well, it really is a joy to be part of. Policy is well-thought out, with sufficient time for research and real engagement with experts, is driven by needs not comms,  and results in positive change.
  2. Most civil servants are deeply committed; extremely hard working; keen to engage with stakeholders and hear a range of views, talented and increasingly diverse. I have of course met a few who would rival Sir Humphrey for obfuscation, but they are not as numerous as the press would have you believe, and the good officials know how to work around them.
  3. Accountability is very important and should not be compromised. This sounds glib, but with the number of departments, units, officials, external partners (all with less than aligned viewpoints) and changes in direction that policy-making goes through as a matter of course, it is absolutely essential that there is a clear line of responsibility for decision-making. Working under a Coalition government makes this even more important (and difficult).
  4. Transparency is increasing, but very slowly. FOI requests are starting to be viewed more positively, but I have met at least one FOI officer who thought his job was to teach us about ways to avoid releasing information.
  5. There has never been more fertile ground for moving power away from the centre, all central departments are trying to work out how they can do it. It is politically driven, of course, and we could debate all day about whether ‘Whitehall’ (a fairly useless and lazy journalistic trope in my view) really wants to do it. It doesn’t matter.  Whatever your views on the politics and the issues with the branding, the Government has set us on a course with Big Society and the Transparency agenda that gives a real opportunity for a permanent shift in power to localities, communities, neighbourhoods. My hope now is to be part of grasping that opportunity and making it a genuine power shift.
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DataBridge – bridging the open data gap

Late night posting does nothing for my inability to sleep, but does get through the old To Do list…  Just a quick word on DataBridge – an idea emerging from the beautiful melee of ideas that was CityCamp Brighton.

The basic premise of DataBridge is that it is brilliant that more and more data from government, central and local, is opening up to the public, but that open data on its own that is not going to be very useful to many people. (Techies aside, who will do wonderful and astonishing things with it).

DataBridge is a collaborative project under development in Brighton to look at how the voluntary sector can make best use of this data, explore it and combine it with their own information, to contribute to a bigger, truer picture; to help with funding & finance, influencing, proving need; to help local government learn how to open up its data in the most useful ways and to create new pictures of where we live by combining data from all sources.

There are many, many possibilities with this, and I’m keen to talk about every one of them, policy and practice, but we want to start with something practical. So to begin with DataBridge will work with a small number of Brighton-based voluntary sector organisations who have a specific and current need to get to better grips with open data, to:

* identify relevant data
* ask the right questions to get manageable and relevant results
* add in their own data to help improve evidence
* get a useable product to help their organisation
* identify gaps in data and gaps in knowledge about using data

We intend to share the journey on-line, as we go and when we get to our destination.

When I say ‘we’ – ideas, enthusiasm and policy brain is supplied by me.

Technical expertise is provided by Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI), a spin-out research consultancy from the University of Oxford. OCSI develop and interpret the evidence base to help the public sector and other organisations deliver better services to the public.

Conversations are happening with Brighton Community & Voluntary Sector Forum and Brighton & Hove City Council. Support, encouragement and useful contacts provided by DemSoc and much vigorous retweeting supplied by lots of lovely Brighton CityCampers.

I know there’s much going on this space, I’m keen to talk about all this – drop me a line…

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Ideas flow at CityCamp BTN

As the dust settles on CityCamp Brighton, here’s a quick look back on what was a fantastic, stimulating, surprising and fun weekend. Below is my version of events, but see how it unfolded for everyone through the twitter feed at Storify complete with pictures, and find the webcast of the speakers and more at citycampbtn.org

Friday lunchtime and a trickle of people start arriving… I’m helping where I can and feeling *terribly* important wielding an official-looking green clipboard. I’m a microphone runner for much of the afternoon which gives me a chance to hear all the speakers – who are uniformly great. Emer Coleman from the London Data Store sets the scene and reflects on experiences of opening data in London; we hear a range of Views from Brighton from a panel of John Barradell, boss at Brighton & Hove City Council, Graham Bartlett, Commander of Brighton & Hove Division of Sussex Police, Emily O’Brien from Brighton CVS Forum and Lisa Rodrigues of Sussex Partnership – which reminded me how much Brightonians (rightly) love their city! Later on, Dan McQuillan, Benita Matofska and Anthony Mayfield set the global context, their talks moving from Tahir Square, to sharing with your neighbours to Soviet Russia.  Fantastically inspirational stuff.

Saturday morning saw us pitching our ideas to the rest of a slightly bleary-eyed group at Hove Town Hall. Clearly thirty seconds to explain your idea is not very long. The range of ideas people have for making Brighton better is already becoming clear. We hear about ideas around food, building communities, improving access to volunteering opportunities, personal safety for teenagers, bringing interactive information to where people already gather. And of course, my suggestion around making it easier for voluntary sector and social enterprises to access public data and helping groups to combine their own information and expertise with data.  More on how this panned out later – I’ve been waxing lyrical on this for ages but not yet found the art of brevity, so another post to follow.

At lunchtime we have a chance to hear Brighton crime novelist Peter James talking about his experiences of researching his books. He manages to make a somewhat gruesome topic rather charming, perhaps it’s his habit of referring to hardened criminals as ‘villains’ which tempers the gory detail of the lives of Police divers and his tour of Brighton’s brothels.

The rest of the day is spent in sessions exploring, expanding and refining our ideas in buzzy and fluid little groups, and we finish up the day pitching back to the whole group, setting out what we need for the Build Day to come.

The energy picks up again quickly on Sunday and grew and grew throughout the day as animated huddles of people talk, build, spark ideas, develop and refine their pitches. Wandering around the groups shows the incredible range of ideas, and the diversity of people who have come together to turn ideas into real projects.

I start Sunday thinking that I’ll just use the day to meet people and think some more about the challenges of making Open Data accessible to the voluntary sector, maybe make some useful contacts and think about how to take the idea forward after CCBTN is over. But the joy of CityCamp is the unexpected and when exactly the right people turn up with a coffee in one hand, a pastry in the other and a brain overflowing with ideas, the magic starts to happen!

A real sense of excitement builds as the pitching starts in earnest – in a dramatically darkened room, there’s a panel of five worthy luminaries judging who will win the £10k prize. Pitching to a room full of interested and engaged people, all of whom have a quiet competitive edge to their expressions is pretty intimidating, not least because of the Man With The Whistle who is quite merciless in his timing.  We do well though, and generate some real interest in what has become DataBridge, but the prize is won by My Urban Angel, a fantastic project that developed from a kernel of an idea on Friday about keeping teenagers safe to the beginnings of an App with real life relevance. Good work team!

CityCamp Brighton is over, but long live the CityCamp Brighton network which will continue and the first meeting is on 7 April – looking forward to it already.

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Why I’m excited about CityCampBTN

This is a blog I did for CityCamp Brighton, also on the Democratic Society website.

I’ve worked in central government for the last 4 years and have been impressed, exhilarated, stimulated, surprised and crushed by the experience in roughly equal measures. Having spent the majority of what I laughingly call my career in the local voluntary sector trying to make a difference, the thing that really drove me to work in central government was making a difference nationally to the structures that surround (and either support or restrict) the way charities and local government work together.  How successful I’ve been is a post for another day, and one perhaps is better suited to the therapists couch then public airing…

The reason that I’m leaving central government is that the power really is moving toward local areas, communities, neighbourhoods. Or rather, the opportunity for power to move is there, but it is only going to actually shift if we grab it ourselves. And it’s going to need a good old yank and a lot of determination to make it a permanent change.

The good news is that there are more tools, data and general willingness than ever before from the top of the Coalition Government to our own local Council. Love him or loathe him, Eric Pickles is right behind this one, saying “Getting council business out in the open will revolutionise local government”.  Brighton & Hove Chief Executive, John Barradell, is first up on Friday afternoon and I’m particularly interested in what will say in his speech.  BHCC is simultaneously very keen on opening up its data, but gets a naughty red cross from OpenlyLocal for not being very open at all.

The not-so-good news is that while there is now a vast amount of local government data out there, without context it’s basically just a great big jumble of numbers. However, I have a hunch that this data can be used to great effect by the voluntary and public sectors if we can work out the right ways of combining local government spend and demographic data with voluntary sector service provision data and expertise. If you add this to the ‘softer’ side of knowing your area, the long experience of front line workers and some thoughtful community engagement, the potential for making a real difference with increasingly scarce resources is huge. I’m looking forward to meeting some likeminds and having a go at making it happen.

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Introducing…

A blank page is always intimidating, especially when you have to write about yourself and why you’re putting yourself out there, but the anticipation is usually worse than the thing itself so here goes…

I’ve spent all of my career in the voluntary sector and public sector, and like so many people, my motivation for doing so was ‘to help make things better’. I’ve spent the last 4 years or so as a civil servant in the Office for Civil Society for exactly that reason, and I will shortly be leaving will continue to try and make a difference from outside of central government.

In my time I have worked in both service delivery and policy, switching from one to the other. When I’m working in policy I miss the frontline and when actually delivering services I get frustrated at my inability to change the bigger picture stuff.

So what is the bigger picture stuff at the moment?  Well, my policy lead at OCS, and before that in the Office for the Third Sector, has been Local Government, so much of what I say is from that perspective. I normally explain this more by describing it as ‘how local government and the voluntary sector can work better together’. This has meant working on Total Place, on the excellent Partnership Improvement Programme, contributing to the National Commissioner Training Programme, working with IpsosMORI on the National Survey of Charities & Social Enterprises and among many other things.

Other more venerated commentators have discussed at length the merits of the Big Society concept, so for now I’ll just observe that for the voluntary, community, social enterprise and mutual sector(s) the opportunities lie in proving their ability to work with others to deliver both the innovation and the cost savings that can help make transformative improvements to public services. The challenge, of course, and this is in no way meant to be glib, lies in surviving long enough to be able to do so and having public sector partners willing to do things differently.

But for those that do make it, and who choose to go down this route, the public sector is opening up. For me, one of the most interesting and exciting windows that are opening is the drive to publish more local (and central) government data – the interesting bit lies in what can be done with that data. How do we bring different sources of data and information together? Different perspectives? How do we make it really useful?  There’s some fantastic work emerging from places like OpenlyLocal, and the Local Government Association, to its credit, is leading the way in setting out how Councils can do open data well.

My first foray into where the worlds of open data and local activism collide will be this weekend, at CityCamp Brighton. More on that tomorrow.

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