Where next for open data?

“Transparency is the most important policy lever we’ve got, and open data is the critical part of this”, so says Tim Kelsey, the government’s new Director of Transparency. At a Demos seminar this lunchtime the explained the vision and scope of the Government’s ambition on open data.

The Government thinks that open data will be both the trigger and the fuel for opening public services, increasing choice and accountability, and boosting economic and social growth. They’ll be publishing a Transparency Strategy in the next couple of weeks for consultation.

Themes of Accountability, Choice, Productivity & Quality in public services, and Social and Economic Growth are closely linked to those in the Open Public Service White Paper and are seen as underpinning progress on government desire to open up public service markets.

For me, and for others on the panel and in the audience, it is important to remember why we are doing this and take this into account when we’re setting about the open data journey. If this is primarily about improving efficiency and effectiveness of public services government at all levels and civil society need to consider, discuss and tackle the following issues:

  • We cannot assume that social innovation happens in the same way as commercial innovation, the resources and actors involved are often very different. Government will have an important role in stimulating social markets and this will be very different to any action they chose to take in relation to commercial markets.
  • We need to consider the capacity of ordinary people, citizens, communities to access, make sense of and use open data. Currently, the assumption is that ‘cliques of geeks’ will magically interpret this data for us and make amazing apps . Open data is not and should not be just for developers and techies – this is just as restrictive and divisive as not publishing the stuff in the first place.
  • Data needs to be published in a way that is useful and which protects peoples’ privacy, which means that some thought must be given to eventual uses and eventual users. This clearly places me firmly in the ‘think about it, do it right’ camp of the Open Data movement, as opposed to the ‘just shove it out there and people will use it’ camp. My reasons for this are not just about accessibility, but also about contributing to long term social gains by thinking wider than Boris bike apps, as handy as they may be, but being ambitious about the scale of social impact by enabling the social markets I was talking about earlier.
  • Most public services are delivered at the local level, or increasingly with personalisation, at the individual level. Central government’s commitments are welcome but let’s not pretend that this is where it ends. I do not believe the central government can or should command local government to get with the programme on this, rather that local government itself should be showing leadership.

Some of the first of these points were discussed by the rest of the panel, in particular Dan Leighton, Head of the Public Interest Programme at Demos, but little useful comment in the issue of making it local.

This post first appeared on www.databridge.org.uk

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Open data – social or commercial opportunity?

Rumours of imminent government announcements about what local government will be ‘required’ to publish have prompted me to write up some of the goings-on in recent weeks.

While I’ve been focusing on DataBridge assessments with our six lovely groups in the last two weeks, I have also been venturing further into open data territory including an Open Data Master Class run by Horizon Digital Research Centre at Nottingham Uni, a session aimed at public and voluntary sectors.

Some of the headline issues that were raised in the morning that struck a chord for me were:

Open Data is not just for developers (referenced to the very wise Tim Davies) – I say this all the time. If public sector organisations exist essentially for social good then surely they should be focusing on how Open Data can be used to created social benefit, innovation and impact?  The commercialapplications will happen of their own accord and in my view it’s not something that government should take an active role in stimulating beyond simply making data available. Social applications on the other hand do require stimulation. There is a very different sort of market for these and we are making a lot of assumptions about the power of open data to result in better services. These need to be tested and proven before the monetary case for social applications is proven, in the meantime we must stimulate and explore social uses of open data such as improving service planning and commissioning decision.

Empowering the empowered, creating a Data Divide and questions of Data Literacy – these are all variations on the theme of access and links back to my point about the market for social applications of Open Data. This is one of the reasons why I tend to put myself in the ‘you have to think about what data you release and how’ camp rather than the ‘release everything you have right now’ camp. As a later presenter pointed out:

“Information is a source of learning. But unless it is organized, processed, and available to the right people in a format for decision making, it is a burden, not a benefit”                                                                                          (William Pollard, 1996)

One of the main aims of DataBridge is to understand and be able to start to address the access issues to using Open Data within the voluntary sector. We have chosen to begin with what organisations do now, and what their ambitions are for use of data, and to use this as the driving force behind work on capacity in the sector and to drive work with local government on how to release Open Data and to develop broad-based City-wide knowledge.

The telling thing is that in spite of all of these challenges we are still assuming that open data is A Good Thing and that it should be encouraged and pursued.

Headings above cribbed from presentations by Dr Hanif Rahemtulla and Ewa Luger of University of Nottingham, and are just a few of the points made. Full presentation pack can be seen at: https://www.horizon.ac.uk/images/stories/open%20data%20handbook%202011.pdf

This post first appeared on www.databridge.org.uk







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Sharing information to understand our city better

The discussion at the Open Data Brighton & Hove group last night with Cllr Jason Kitcat and lots of others got me thinking about not just opening up data held by the council, but about the flow of open data in a more circular way, and who else has data to contribute to our understanding of the City – in particular, the voluntary and community sector.

Two pootling ten minute train rides and an animated discussion over breakfast pastries later, and I’m playing around with this model to help think about these ideas and how to progress them.

Obviously there ought to be many more arrows on here, for example, linking a VCS data store to Other Locally Generated Data, and linking Data Out to a VCS data store. In fact, I could have made it into a nice virtuous circle…a project for another day.

Under Data Out, I’m including the current work by Paul Brewer et al on the Google doc on opening up existing published Brighton & Hove City Council datasets but also, those that aren’t currently published, those that could usefully be published, and those from other public agencies such as the health services and Police.

Under Data In, I’m thinking particularly about the vast and varied data produced by the voluntary and community sector, but this would also include things like data sets on public transport. This could help build a more nuanced understanding of citizen needs and help make more transparent (and more supported?) spending decisions.

Under Data Between, I’m thinking about ways of enabling VCS organisations to use data from elsewhere in the sector to feed into their own research, decision-making and bidding.  A VCS datastore  is not a new idea, but something I’d like to explore locally through the DataBridge project, even if it’s only a very simple repository of shared data sets. I am choosing not to address right now the issues around data and competitive advantage for voluntary sector providers over other providers, which has been written about by others – but definitely one to come back to.

Is this a useful way of thinking about all this?  I think it breaks down what is a potentially vast area into more manageable bits, but all of which are supportive of each other. A work in progress, obviously, and thoughts very welcome.

So questions to you are:

  • A VCS data store is a vast challenge, and not one that can be created without a serious project plan and funding, but what other examples are there out there of areas tackling this question?
  • Are there templates or existing models used to share data within the VCS in a locality?
  • Do you know of examples where VCS data (from those providing public services and others) is routinely and systematically included as part of statutory partner decision-making (as opposed to blanket reporting by VCS to funders of inputs/outputs, and ad hoc requests for evidence)
  • Any other comments or suggestions?!
Also published over on www.databridge.org.uk
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Big Society shrinkage?

Lord Wei, the Coalition Government’s Big Society ‘tsar’, stood down today. Cue a chorus of puns about small society and volunteers doing his job, and more dire warnings about how Cameron’s flagship policy is under threat.  But in the midst of all this we should still ask what is worth pursuing out of the ideas corralled under the Big Society banner.

Lord Wei of Shoreditch

Coming the day after Cameron again relaunched Big Soc, this is indeed a blow. However, within the Big Society policy there are useful principles and opportunities which the voluntary sector and those working for more local civic engagement would do well to remember.

Government says “It’s about putting more power in people’s hands – a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities”.  What’s not to like? However, it’s Government that has decided how this should happen. A truly radical approach would have been less dogmatic and more co-productive.

So, the three principles of Big Society and what they could be:

  • Community empowerment – not restricted to planning reforms, dubious in the amount of power they actually give to communities, but new ways of engaging people in meaningful democratic conversations. Stepping outside weary old ‘consultation’, the traditional routes through formal networks and the same community representatives (although these have enormous value and should not be ignored) and think about how a non-partisan, continuous, reciprocal conversation can be established between citizens and their local government.
  • Opening up public services – competition can improve quality, but this is not always true in all of the cases. This dogmatic approach misunderstands the nature of public services, the feeling of many citizens, and just simple geography. If opening public services means investing in long term preventative solutions (often offered exclusively by third sector providers who have a commitment to the client, not the profit margin); if it means understanding that co-designed services can result in better outcomes for people, often at less cost in the long run (but acknowledging that this process in itself is not free), and if it means commissioners being bold enough to include ‘buy local’ and social value clauses in their ITTS, then bring it on.
  • Social action – encouraging people to play a more active part in society is a laudable aim. But current policy fails to look at why people don’t. If your life is chaotic, or your job insecure, or if you struggle to make ends meet, or if you are housed in an area where you aren’t exactly relaxed about your neighbours, being chided to ‘take part’ is just irrelevant. Continued, long term, stable, strategic investment is needed to even out the ability of the country to ‘take part’.  Something beyond training for unpaid Community Organisers and the odd grant through Community First – if you can raise the match funding needed to access it.

Government has failed to define Big Society in a way that resonates with people, they have failed to separate the brand from the cuts, and they refuse to accept (or to do anything about) the fact that swingeing cuts to local government will undermine their stated ambitions on Big Society.

In addition to this, Lord Wei has not been a universal hit. I will refrain from describing my own experiences of working with him. It may be a blessing in disguise that he has stepped down, I doubt he will be replaced, but if he is, his successor would do to listen more and announce less.

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Technology for engagement?

How do we create a positive vision of Localism? How do we ensure that everyone who wants a say can have a say? What role can new technologies play in answering these big questions? Add these questions to a wifi keyboard, a bank of red sofas and some deep fried nibbles and you’ve got yourself an interesting evening.

BFI by night

These questions and more were discussed last night in the lovely surrounds of the BFI at an event run by Sandbox part of the University of Central Lancashire. It was a chance to use their innovative Red system – a way of capturing, organising and interacting with responses typed by participants, all displayed in super-massive-humungo-widescreen projection.

Sandbox are also doing exciting work in Preston on Cultural Mappingusing mobile technology to look at the relationships between individuals and communities and how they locate, operate and flow through certain environments and public spaces. They hope that this framework will be useful in informing planning and  public engagement.

They use a similar approach in a project with wheelchair users, using handheld computers to record their experience of the built environment. In conjunction with the Cultural Mapping Project, it will provide city planners with a unique data layer when considering the future shape of Preston.

But we were there to talk about Localism while playing with the techno toys. A range of people from the innovation, social enterprise, policy and arts worlds were asked about what localism means to them, what are the benefits, the challenges. Perhaps a rather simple questions, and certainly a homogeneous audience in terms of outlook, but some useful ideas were thrown up nonetheless.

Two of the key challenges noted were firstly, the lack of an ‘invest to save mentality’ – how can we do things really differently if there isn’t the willingness to commit and invest in long term change? Change that is not tied to the average tenure of a local authority chief executive, or term of a politician local or national.  How does democracy transcend politics?

And  secondly, concern about how a wide range of voices can genuinely and fairly be heard and acted upon threaded throughout the discussion. It’s really interesting that when you start to talk to people about better democratic conversations, they start to play that back to you from their own perspective. So, widespread scepticism of true motivations of government, and concerns about how localism can be successful with no resource becomes a discussion about developing existing mechanisms of engagement and improving their reach, influence and ability to innovate.

I was particularly interested in two contrasting approaches. One very local and personal Spots of Time, which is about ‘having a minute’ to do something, and the positive engagement that is created on a very micro level. At the other end of the scale, Indy Johar of 00:/ is thinking about the macro concepts in the global/local economic context and socially driven sustainability. Look out for his book Compendium for the Civil Economy written in conjunction with NESTA, launching tomorrow.

This post first appeared over at demsoc.org

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From community councils to a Pop Up think tank

Brief musings on how everything really is connected.

This morning, taking a morning stroll through the internet I have gone from a Dem Soc tweet about a likely-to-be-successful campaign in LB Westminster for London’s first community council and the National Association of Local Councils’ new resource for areas wanting to set up a community council to discovering that NALC (good organisation, terrible website) & CPRE were successful in their joint bid for funding from CLG for neighbourhood planning.

Ignoring the press releases on street parties and flying the St George’s flag I went straight on to have a look at the Government’s progress reports from Departmental Business plans and was of course particularly interested in looking at the Cabinet Office update. Here I saw without much surprise that the Public Services White Paper  is now slated for publication in July, briefly wondered whether it would be anything like the early drafts that I was involved in, and saw that the first wave of Community Organisers are being trained…

And so to Locality to look for an update on Community Organisers and thus to Jess Steele’s blog. Jess, as the project manager of the Community Organiser programme, has been praised greatly for being so open about the process, including posting their winning bid online. I have enjoyed reading her posts, and appreciate the transparency that she’s bringing to the development of what has been a controversial but potentially really useful scheme.

Jess posted about a conversation with Tessy Britton (who I was reading yesterday and who has a beautiful website that I plan to explore more later) and I saw that Jess had been involved with Meanwhile Space. And, I know that Meanwhile Space are this very week involved with POPse! – a pop up think tank on social enterprise policy.

POPse! is bringing together a vibrant group of the UK’s leading social enterprise thinkers and practitioners to spend a week together to share and develop ideas. It aims to provide a burst of critical energy and robust analysis of social enterprise policy and practice through the publication of think pieces, pamphlets and other web-based material (check out their marathon twitter efforts ‘100 social enterprise truths’!).  It’s all taking place in a Meanwhile Space (the old subway shop) in Exmouth Market, London. All interested people are welcome, and they’re all very nice, so go along and say hello.  I’m sorry I couldn’t take part in the end.

So they have already taken a critical intellectual gallop through the Localism Bill, social finance  and today is Mutual Tuesday – which also encompasses asset transfer, spin outs and community involvement in managing local services and buildings.

Which brings me right back to Community Councils again. Having completed one lap of the web I think I deserve a cup of tea.

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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.


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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