Publishing data will change behaviour. A bald statement but one that is
pregnant with significance for the many public sector bodies who have not yet
even started on the path to publishing data, such as the 90% of local
authorities claimed to have not done anything in this area yet.
Another way to think about this is your ASBO tracking app on your iPhone
)was the number one free app the week it was launched).
Want to know how many anti-social yobs live in your ward or where your child's
new school will be? Time was, there was literally no way to get such
information. But by making the dataset available, some enterprising types were
able to put this information at your fingertips.
Yet at the same time ñ open data will fail in a lot of instances, there
will be scandals and there are still big questions on what sort of data can and
should be made public. Confused? Well, now may be the time to start embracing
the complexities of the open government data phenomenon, sometimes also called
crowdsourcing, according to a variety of experts and practitioners speaking at
this week's Beyond 2010 conference on digital innovation in Birmingham.
ìThis won't be a perfect process,î warns Nigel Shadbolt, chair of the
Local Data Panel
Transparency and Open Data Advisor. ìIt's important to realise that at the
outset and we will see some bad examples. But to avoid any moral panic, we have
to realise at the outset that the importance of publishing public data assets
"There's no reverse gear on this," points out Stuart Harrison of Lichfield
District Council, who's been leading publishing of this sort of data for his
council. "The Transformation Agenda is not going away."
At the same time, use of public data by the intelligent citizen is actually
deeply embedded in the British public service tradition. Take John Snow, who
used such data in 1854 to show that an outbreak of cholera in Soho could be
traced to one particular dirty street pump "a pioneer example of crowdsourcing"
that, to quote Shadbolt, "changed public health forever".
Change of behaviour is what all this is about, remember. Shadbolt's other
example apart from the ASBOrometer is that of the Mother of Parliaments herself.
Public data was compiled to set up the e-democracy site They Work For
which has been taken as an example and model for the official
Progress so far
Tracing a direct line from Snow to the ASBOrometer makes sense for many
public sector open data pioneers. So far some 4,000 datasets have already been
made public at the central government end, the site itself, incidentally, using
Open Source software ("This site is in permanent beta," jokes Shadbolt) and some
of the most secure and battle-tested software in the world ñ the code that makes
it so much less easy to hack Windpipe than it used to be.
Shadbolt, who is also benefiting from the input of World Wide Web and
Semantic Web developer Tim Berners-Lee, says that the Open Government Data camp
is more than aware that not all of those 4,000 are perfect. "There is a
phenomenon of endangered species datasets, we can see not all datasets and
'created equal,' there are clear issues around quality," he told the Beyond 2010
But that doesn't matter. "The problem isn't deciding on the public's behalf
what is interesting, useful or too poor quality. The presumption must always
Will each dataset be turned into something actually useful, though? Again,
Shadbolt and other open data proponents say that's not the point. For every
successful site, there will be initiatives that fail or falter. "But what we can
be sure of is that we will learn things we didn't know before in terms of what
data we have, what it means, and what uses the public can make of it,"he is
And how easy will it be to meet these open data objectives? Other speakers,
like Kate Sahota of Warwickshire County Council, who has set up an open data
site for her authority, admit there are still some questions. "We were told that
we couldn't publish where lollipop ladies worked as they were lone workers who
could potentially be targeted by a Jack The Ripper type," she says, though in
this case health and safety intervened in a positive way and the bat was
There have also been some snags with the Ordnance Survey on what's called
'derived [geographical] data,' based on issues around Crown Copyright about what
sort of mapping information can be legally used.
But once again "that can't stop the revolution", argues Shadbolt and other
converts to the open data movement. "In the end we want not just URLs out there
for everyone but bus stops, individual expense transactions, school locations,
this is all data that the public paid for and the public deserves to
The final comment in the week when we start to think about how to live with
the CSR has to go to Adrian Brown of think tank Institute for Government
Whitehall they are less focused on words like dataset than we may be ñ but they
are very convinced of the Big Society agenda. Freeing up data will be key to any
move to making that vision a reality."
Now that seems quite a useful way to think about how data can change