Category Archives: data

Shelter Housing Database

Shelter Housing Databank

Another useful open data visualisation resource, this time from Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity.

The Shelter Housing Database“brings together government data on housing need, supply, affordability and other issues at a local, regional and national level”, allowing you to produce graphs and download data in a nice user friendly way.

Could be a very helpful resource for people working in and around housing issues.

Birmingham Civic Dashboard

Birmingham Civic Dashboard

The Birmingham Civic Dashboard is a neat project from the City Council that reports the requests made for services from the organisation and visualises them in interesting ways, such as by plotting them on a map.

It was funded by NESTA as part of the Make It Local programme, which also produced such excellence as the Sutton Bookswap and Kirklees’ Who Owns My Neighbourhood?

The Civic Dashboard aims to:

…make public, data relating to what issues people are reporting to the council. The belief being that when looked at on a map and in real-time the accumulation of data would provide and insight into the issues facing both the citizens of Birmingham and the council itself as it responds to the issues raised.

Interesting stuff!

The revolution will not be comma separated

I had a fun day yesterday at the Civil Service Fast Stream conference, which was focusing on big society type stuff. I was running a session on open government, with a concentration on open data.

As a bit of fun, while we were talking I asked the members of the group to draw what occurred to them when thinking about open data.

Open data drawing

If you click the photo, you’ll be taken to the original on Flickr, which I have annotated with what I remember of the descriptions from the artists.

Once again, in a conversation about open data, I ended up coming across as being somewhat sceptical.

I’m all in favour of transparency in government, and I’m also very much in favour of public services publishing their information in accessible formats.

What I’m not so sure about are some of the claims made for the potential of open data to transform government, and its relationship with citizens.

I can’t see where the business model is for third parties to create applications based on this data, unless government itself pays. I’m also unconvinced that there are enough people around with the skills (and indeed the inclination) to either be effective armchair auditors or civic hackers all over the country.

I suspect the biggest users of open data will end up being journalists, and the work that newspapers such as The Guardian are already doing seems to support this. It’s a good thing, but hardly sees a great redrawing of the traditional ways of doing things.

The other area where I can see benefit coming from an openness around information assets and a different attitude towards data is in the use of it by government itself. I agree with Andrea DiMaio that if open government is to become a reality, it is going to happen through the actions of public servants themselves, rather than from activists on the outside.

So, transparency is important. There are opportunities around open data, as well as challenges. Right now, though, I struggle to see how dramatic change will happen as a result of publishing data.

I’d be very happy to be proven wrong, though!

From New Public Management to Open Governance (the back story)

I’m delighted to publish this – a guest post from Emer Coleman, Director of Digital Projects at the GLA, sharing her dissertation with us.

Anyone who has been following me on Twitter for the past year will know my struggles with “the dreaded dissertation” so it might be worth putting its origins in context.

In a previous life as Director of Strategy for Barnet Council I disagreed with a very deeply held belief in Local Government that the holy grail of resident satisfaction was how much you communicated with your residents. There was a correlation in Best Value surveys carried out every three years between “how informed” residents were and their satisfaction levels. But of course correlation does not imply causality. The simple edict went as follows Council Magazine + A to Z of Council Services + Managing Local News = Satisfied Residents.

Our corporate management team therefore wanted to do a huge communications campaign in advance of one of these surveys to ensure that residents knew exactly what their council did for them. The logic being that when they filled out their surveys on council performance they would recognize the council’s work. If only.

My Chief Executive at the time in response to my doubts said – “well if you want to change their minds you better put up a well argued case”. My dissertation is my attempt to do that.

In a nutshell it draws on the work of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas who draws the distinction between the System and the Lifeworld. In the system where government lives we believe in these simplistic correlations but in the messy and complex Lifeworld we know that human beings don’t act in rational or predictable ways.

My belief is that open data, open government and the open conversations that take place in public in the social web offer great opportunities to move from the rational ordered public sector way of doing things to a more humanized, communicative form of governance. I tried to example that in the case study on the London Datastore and by including contributions by so many people in the open data movement that have helped me in developing my public policy work around open data.

My work and practice has been incredibly energized by the interactions that happen on the web and through my engagement with developers and innovators committed to the public realm. Mark Drapeau (@cheeky_geeky) calls them The Goverati (though my tutor didn’t like the name much) but I do. So a big thank you to all of you (you know who you are).

Download From New Public Management to Open Governance (PDF 2.3mb)

Who Owns My Neighbourhood?

Who Owns My Neighbourhood?

Who Owns My Neighbourhood? is a cool new project from Kirklees Council. Supported by NESTA, according to the blurb it:

…is a service that helps local people take responsibility for the land, buildings and activities where they live and work.

Basically, you bung in a postcode from the Huddersfield area and it plots who owns which bits of land on a map.

The project blog expands on this:

Who Owns My Neighbourhood? aims to give people a starting point for getting things done in their own neighbourhoods. We hope this service will make it easier for people to have conversations about their local area and for us to answer each other’s questions by sharing what we know. We want people to think about what personal responsibility we are each willing to take for the place where we live, and how we might be able to help each other to look after it.

Will be an interesting project to track.

Guidance for councils on publishing data

LG Group Transparency Programme

The LG Group have today launched a feedback site to get views on the draft guidance that has been developed for councils on the based ways to approach publishing open data.

As the site says:

Many authorities already publish considerable data. The challenge now is to be systematic about this, and to adopt some basic digital approaches in making data public to maximise everyone’s ability to benefit.

The Local Government Group in collaboration with the Local Public Data Panel is publishing a set of guides to offer practical help to meet both immediate targets of publishing data, and to adopt approaches that will add most value for local people and public services over the longer term.

This is a rapidly evolving and innovative agenda, so the guides are not static, mandatory requirements but rather they are ‘live’ documents that are open for you to comment on and offer the benefits of your experience.

The live nature of the documents is down to the fact that they are hosted on Steph Gray‘s marvellous Read+Comment setup which allows for the rapid publication of commentable documents.

As well as being commentable the site also publishes all the content in open reusable formats through RSS – a great example of walking the talk.

As I discussed with Tim on the podcast, it’s vital to increase the levels of data literacy at all levels of government – explaining the whys and the wherefores as well as the techie stuff about licenses and formats. This guidance is a great start, and if folk across the open local government scene get involved and add the benefit of their knowledge and experience through this site, it should be even better.

It’s also an opportunity, of course, for councils to have their say on this whole agenda. Open data is no panacea and, approached in the wrong way, it could have profound negative implications. So even if you are yet to drink the open data Kool-Aid, get stuck in now or forever hold your peace.

The need for data literacy

My attention was caught the other day by an article in The Register: “Data.gov.uk chief admits transparency concerns”

The head of the government’s website for the release of public sector data has said it is a challenge to ensure that users can understand the statistics.

Cabinet Office official Richard Stirling, who leads the team that runs Data.gov.uk, said that if he was at the Office for National Statistics he would have concerns about statistical releases and people making assumptions “that aren’t quite valid”.

The article was based on a podcast interview with Richard, and in typical journalistic style, took one part of his message and ignored the rest. To get the full picture, listen to the original audio.

datagovukBearing all this in mind, though, I do think this is an important issue which probably needs to be explored more thoroughly than it already exists.

To use myself as an example: I’m a geek, and I like computers, the internet *and* I find government interesting. I suspect this puts me into a very small percentage of the population. But even then – other than thinking open government data is almost certainly a good thing, and being able to reel off all the arguments around transparency and improving services – I don’t really understand or know how this happens. I am completely data illiterate.

This takes two forms. Firstly, knowing what data is, what format it is in and what can be done with it. Essentially a techie thing – fine, the data is there, but how do I do anything with it? This is probably the least important problem, because producing apps and mashups probably isn’t something that everybody needs to be able to do.

The second form is more important, though, and that is based in statistical awareness, understanding of how data is manipulated, and a grip of the context within which the original data was published.

In other words, if I come across some nifty app using open government data, how do I know what biases the developer had? Who – if anyone – paid them to do this? How can I check that the results it produces are correct?

Because even though the original data is published openly, and I can check that, the chances are I will not understand the relationship between that and the nifty app in question.

There’s always the argument that it was ever thus – not that it is a particularly good argument – but when statistical analysis appears in a newspaper, for example, most people are aware of the biases of those publications.

Don’t get me wrong – releasing data is important. But the technical challenges are of course the easy bit, whether sticking a CSV file on a web page or creating an API. What I am talking about is ensuring a reasonable level of data literacy for people at the receiving end.

Hadley Beeman’s project could well be something that could answer some of these issues, by providing a space for data to be stored, converted to a common format and appropriately annotated (assuming I have understood it correctly!).

Another possibility is a book being written in Canada, or the Straight Statistics site which seems full of good information (thanks to Simon for the tip).

But none of these seems to scratch the data literacy itch, really. We need interesting, well written, engaging content to help people get to a level where they can understand the process and context of open data. Might it even involve e-learning? It could do.

Filling the opendata gaps

Hadley Beeman has posted about a great little project idea:

…there’s a gap between the government opendata vision and the reality. The datasets are often released full of unintelligible codes, information that the developers outside government (building apps and visualisations) would love to have. This makes sense to me: I’ve seen budget codes, cost centre codes, programme codes in my various government roles… I can imagine that analysis would be complicated if you didn’t have a legend or translations for them…

…The first thing we need is a tool to crowdsource metadata about government data. This should allow those who know something about the data (civil servants, local government officers, etc.) to easily mark it in such a way that everyone can see and use their knowledge.

Essentially, we will be adding to the datasets as they come out of government, so that everyone who wants to use them will have better data to work with.

It’s fair to say that I know nothing about opendata, other than that it is probably a good thing and that the more context that can be added to it, the better. It seems like Hadley’s project is a sound one and one that if it succeeds will brings a great deal of benefit both to government and to citizens – via our friends, the civil hackers.

Hack Warwickshire

Warwickshire County Council‘s approach to open government and IT strategy is impressive. Check out their IT strategy blog, where they detail their use of the cloud, for example, and their open data site. Great stuff, and good to see it happening at a council where I used to work! I spent a year as a Business Analyst there, between 2005 and 2006.

On the open data blog, Warwickshire have announced a competition, called Hack Warwickshire:

After the recent launch of our Warwickshire Open Data web site, we are really keen to see the new and innovative uses that our information can be put to. Whatever your idea, whether it is an incisive data visualisation, a web mashup, an app for your mobile or a way of integrating with social networking – this competition is a way for you to get involved with the open data revolution, build something cool and possibly get your hands on a brand new iPad with which to show your winning entry off.

Sounds good to me. Well worth following what these guys are up to.