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De-geekifying open data

We’ve recently introduced an open data workstream – led by Lucy Knight (Devon County Council) and Jamie Whyte (Trafford Innovation and Intelligence Lab). Here Lucy de-geekifys open data as a sort of 101 for anyone getting started in this area.

Ok, so my colleagues at Local Gov Digital asked me to de-geekify this whole open data thing in a blog post or two. That’s tricky – I’d have to make a lot of assumptions about you, dear reader, and your level of geekdom.

My blog gets read (sometimes) by people who run servers on their smartphones, and write code in their heads while making pancakes and singing along to Dolly Parton in the morning. Yes, you lot. You know who you are. You can look away now. You already know this stuff. 

Unless you don’t … you see, the thing about open data is, people assume it’s all about the tech. It’s complex. It’s digital. It’s Python and Javascript and APIs* and URIs and hack nights and pizza and obscure linked data formats. 

Except where it isn’t. A dataset can be as simple as a spreadsheet table with a few rows and two columns, or as complex as a constantly-updating stream of bits via an API *, or a huge set of raster files for maps. It doesn’t have to be massively technically complicated, because the key word in all of this is ‘open’. Open data is about openness. This is the entire point, the reason we are even talking about it.   

Here’s a useful definition from the Open Data Institute guidance:

“Open data is data that is made available by organisations, businesses and individuals for anyone to access, use and share.

“Open data has to have a licence that says it is open data. Without a licence, the data can’t be reused.

“The licence might also say:  

  • that people who use the data must credit whoever is publishing it (this is called attribution)
  • that people who mix the data with other data have to also release the results as open data (this is called share-alike)”

If information is released as open data, I can take that data, and I can do almost anything I want to with it. I can dump it into Excel or Open Office and make a pretty chart with it. I can write an article about my chart. In fact I can make a chart, draw an unflattering conclusion about the data provider, and blog about it publicly or sell the story to the local paper. I can point out that somebody got their sums wrong or people are claiming too much on expenses or spending too much on printer paper.

If I’ve got the skills ** or I know people who have, I can create new apps or web services with it, and if I want to I can sell them for 79p a time. Or £7.99, or £79.99 if the market will bear it. That’s where the ‘economic stimulus’ part comes in. 

But here’s the most important thing for me about open data; the reason I support it and promote it the way I do. It’s not about the cool stuff we could do with it (although obviously there can never be too much cool stuff). It’s about fighting the perception that the public sector is full of people hiding information from the public. I’m tired of being seen as part of some evil cynical fact-obscuring machine. 

We’re not hiding stuff – we often genuinely don’t know. We’re not concealing secret income streams. We’re not dragging our heels because we’re afraid of what you might find – but we might stall a bit to make the data ‘perfect’ before we share it, because if you saw what we have to work with every day you might laugh at us.

Across the public sector we have some work to do to get over this fear and just open up a bit, and it’s the non-technical aspects of the open data ecosystem – the ordinary citizens asking common sense questions and taking an interest in how we work – that will help us to do just that.

* ApplicationProgramme Interface = bit of code that asks nicely for the data and brings it back to you.

** I don’t (yet).