Show them a better way

Bit late on this one, but hey ho. The Power of Information Taskforce has launched a new initiative, which many commentators have ikened to the BBC Backstage project, to open up the way that government data can be hacked about. Effectively, ideas are being requested to improve the way government communicates. To quote the site, called Show Us a Better Way:

The Power of Information Taskforce want to hear your ideas on how to reuse, represent, mashup or combine the information the government holds to make it useful.  To provide you with some raw materials we will be posting some links to information sources here.

Steve Dale recorded a video of Tom Watson – the Cabinet Office Minister responsible for the Task Force – introducing the competition at 2gether08.

Bill Thompson writes:

The downside is that although they’ve got access to many of these sources they can’t be used freely yet, as there are still many restrictions on how we can exploit the data the government collects on our behalf. But if enough good ideas emerge then it will help put pressure on the various data holders to offer more permissive license, and we may eventually see a general presumption that public data is freely available to the public, as The Guardian has been arguing for a while now.

Simon Dickson says:

Having worked with several of the data suppliers listed, I’m delighted they managed to get agreement to expose their data – although I guess the backing of a Minister who actually understands it all can’t have done any harm. It’s especially inspiring to see the Office for National Statistics joining the effort, with the release of an API for its disappointing Neighbourhood Statistics. Here’s hoping the Community can do a better job on interface design and results presentation.

A term that has been bandied about a good deal recently in connected with this and other initiatives is ‘codesign’, the idea that processes and products are best developed in the open, with the cooperation and collaborative between government, organisations, communities and individuals.

In many ways, there is no reason why government shouldn’t engage in these sorts of developments, after all it theoretically shouldn’t have the competitive elements that might dissuade commercial enterprises from sharing all.

I wonder if I can tie in here the comment Tom Steinberg of MySociety left here recently, picking up on a point I made about who’s responsibility it is to actually get things done in this space:

“Is it organisations like MySociety? Or is it every individual with a laptop and a broadband connection? I am beginning to suspect the answer is the latter”

That would be awesome, but until Ning gets good enough to make building sites like WhatDoTheyKnow into a point-and-click exercise we’ll have to keep filling the gaps, sorry!

Of course, there is no need for Tom to apologise at all. There is a gap at the moment, and MySociety is filling it, and enriching the online political experience better than anyone else. No doubt too that MySociety will be coming up with some awesome, innovative ideas to make use of data, whether through Show Us a Better Way or not.

Exercises like this one just launched by the Taskforce make the liklihood of a growing army of bedroom government institutional hackers all the more likely. They may only have a very narrow interest in a specific part of government. They may not want to help government at all, but maybe groups on the outside of the usual political processes. Either way, they may nevr have had the chance to participate in these kind of exercises before.

It will be interesting to see, if the codesign concept takes off within government, whose (who’s?) responsibility it ends up being. It’s not a webby’s job, really, but it isn’t strictly a policy thing either. It blends and mashes the two into a new role as ill-defined and messy as the process of codesign itself. How this can fit into a departmental org chart, God only knows.

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Dave Briggs

Digital oddbod.