Government 2010: Open Data, Mashups and Government Web

And open data! I’ve got to declare an interest here. I’m a cofounder of Timetric – so I, of course, think that open data is a really great thing and we need a lot more of it!

The panel for this session is chaired by Ewan Mackintosh, a 4iP commissioner, joined by:

  • Paul Canning from Public Sector Web Professionals, part of SOCITM: he’s setting up a professional body, and skills-development framework, for people who work with the web within Government. (There are around 5000 of them!)
  • Colm Hayden, technical director of information integration company Anaeko: their software can be used to join and connect Government backend systems, providing machine-readable integrated views onto Government data. They’re aiming to make projects like the Sunlight Foundation’s FedSpending.org possible. The best of those can then move back in as official Government services.
  • Stewart McRae, an evangelist from IBM. He started 35 years ago in the days of punched cards: it’s easy to forget, but (thanks to the PC and the internet) we’ve come a long way!
  • Chris Taggart of Openly Local, which is aiming to be the TheyWorkForYou of local government. He’s arguing that without access to data, people are (in a sense) disenfranchised.

Chris says making data available is about engagement: you can’t get to the “democracy” page on Birmingham City Council’s website without Javascript and cookies switched on. OpenlyLocal pulled the data out and rebuilt the site themselves, making it available to people using screen readers. (Paul Canning points out this has really bad political implications for the council.)

Colm suggests that you can never centralise all the data – but you can centralise the catalogue of the data. This then ties in with the Linked Data message. (In the UK, incidentally, that also means the data.gov.uk vision, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee and colleagues!)

But what about Joe Bloggs, the ultimate user? Ewan brings it back to that: Channel 4 is all about the audience. People have to go somewhere where they can use the data. Stewart talks about a new media which is about data-mining: the next Google could be someone who hits a goldmine of an idea. Some way of building something about the around the data, and a brand to build around it. Over time, the most successful and attractive services will gather momentum, but there’ll be niche and boutique services.

Ewan asks: will this shakeout creating another aristocracy of the Web? The answer to that might be Linked Data, says Colm: as long as you can link all the versions and representations together, then you can still navigate all the different uses of the data. Also, how do you gain an audience for these Open Data products?

Chris’s response is that:

You’ll know that open data’s successful when no-one knows they’re using it.

Instead, you’ll just go to your local council website, which happens to use Open Data under the covers: it’ll go off to data.gov.uk or another store and run some queries, return the results, and those results’ll be useful. Ewan also speaks on the need to make the experience of using open data surprising and delightful; there aren’t that many people addicted to, say, mySociety‘s websites out there!

Ewan then asks the question: what stories get covered by open data and social media? The MPs expenses scandal and Trafigura were traditional investiative journalism; the US Airways ditching on the Hudson River in New York was broken on Twitter, but traditional media supplied the depth and context. Without traditional media, you wouldn’t have found out that no-one was hurt, or about the pilot’s background story. Chris responds by saying we’re in a transitional period: social, participatory journalism is only now beginning to find its feet.

Finally, unintended consequences – Stewart points out there’s a privacy concern, in that what if correlations can be drawn from open data to identify people? And transparency: Colm claims open data isn’t just about transparency, but also about building better services and better businesses, and Chris wants us all to be – in Ewan’s word – treated like adults, and open data is part of that.

Another fascinating session, and a tremendous day’s conference. I hope you enjoyed the live blogging: if you want more from me, join my at my blog, or my blog on data journalism (part of the day job), or on Twitter. Thanks for having me!

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.