Unlocking the Power of Local Government Information

The Power of Information Taskforce has shared some great advice on their blog for local authorities to help them share their data with people who want to do interesting stuff with it.

It includes making it clear to folk exactly what they can do with the data, using a single common licence to reduce confusion and recommends the use of the PSI’s ‘Click-use‘ licence.

Finding and Re-using Public Information

The Open Knowledge Foundation is holding a workshop on ‘Finding and Re-using Public Information’ on Saturday 1 November, at the London Knowledge Lab.

The wiki promises the event will:

…bring government information experts together with those who are interested in finding and re-using government information. In addition to focused discussions about legal and technological aspects of re-use, government information assets will be documented and tagged on CKAN, a registry of knowledge resources.

Looks like it should be a good day, I’ve put my name down.

Civil servants and the social web

I spent an interesting morning last Friday at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, attending a meeting of ‘civil servant bloggers’ – not many of whom, it turned out, actually blogged – to discuss the recent guidelines for online participation. It was organised through the Power of Information Taskforce.

I found it a peculiar experience, not really being sure of what the purpose of the workshop was, nor what would happen to the results, whatever they may have been.

The guidelines themselves are short and sweet, and whilst in many ways their brevity is a strength, they do (out of necessity) simplify an issue which is actually pretty complicated when you think about it. For instance, what do we actually mean when we talk about online participation? Also, how could civil servants participate online? There are several choices:

  • They can do so internally or externally
  • They can use social media to communicate or collaborate
  • They can use their own platform, or get involved with someone else’s
  • They can do so officially, or personally

I doubt whether the guidelines will encourage too many civil servants to start blogging, which is probably a good thing, if we are being honest. Most have neither the neither the time nor the inclination to start their own blogs, and it is a truth universally recognised that there is nothing worse than blogs that run out of steam, or enthusiasm.

Instead, I think there needs to be a focus on participating online in other people’s spaces. This is a quick, easy way for officials to engage without the need for the continuous content generation that comes with setting up a new platform. It’s also something that could develop over time:

  1. Listen to what’s being said – set up simple RSS feeds and subscribe to searches on key terms to monitor the online conversation
  2. Get involved – where appropriate, leave responses where they are required, or acknowledge and link to such conversations from the traditional web presence
  3. Create content – if it is necessary or useful, start a blog to provide a way of providing information and views that work better on a standalone site

To do this though, officials need the resources to be able to do it: time, skills and tools. The recent work at DIUS goes to show just what is possible when roles are created to focus on digital participation issues. Training is required to show civil servants how to do stuff – but it needs to be directly focused on what people in specific jobs need, whether press officers, policy officials, or whoever. Rather than training, ‘mentoring’ or ‘coaching’ is probably the better term for this. In terms of tools, people need to be able to access sites, whether blogs, forums or social networks, without having to request to IT to lift the block on each one. They also need up-to-date browsers which can handle Flash or AJAX type content, and which render pages properly. Far, far too many public institutions use IE6 as their most up to date browser – it isn’t good enough.

Ingrid was at the event too, and posted her thoughts here.

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.

Power of Information Task Force

Tom Watson posted up his speech announcing the Power of Information Task Force on his blog yesterday and it contained some really good stuff. I guess that those who want to can snicker about the notion of creating a task force to promote innovation (shouldn’t we be organising without organisations?), but I’m glad that there will be some folk looking into this stuff, and it would be nice if they do so in an open and collaborative way.

Only last week, the Prime Minister became the first head of Government in Europe to launch his own channel on Twitter, which I can tell you from experience, is extremely useful to his ministers at least.

But we need to make it easier for others too.

Hazel Blears
with be leading this agenda when her department will address this in a White Paper on engagement in the summer.

But I want to take the Power of Information agenda further and do it faster. So today I am announcing the establishment of the Power of Information Taskforce. I’m pleased to say that Richard Allan has agreed to Chair the Taskforce. Richard has a vast breadth of knowledge in this field. He’s also an all round good guy and I know he will help us provide clarity to government departments as they contend with the power of information agenda.

Most interesting for me were the bits that focused on community engagement and participation. Let’s have a look at one or two now.

And in the week where the digital world went crazy over Mystarbucksidea.com (I’ve already voted for free Wifi), NHS choices launched a blog about diabetes, bringing together the people who treat the illness and the people who receive treatment. It’s a brilliant ideas and hopefully will foster a new information community who can work together to improve things.

I was diagnosed a type 1 diabetic about a year ago, so have quite an interest in this. I was 27 when I was diagnosed, which is a funny age I think, and led to it taking quite a while for the doctors to figure out if I was type 1 (meaning injections) or type 2 (meaning I had to eat less). I still haven’t got to grips with it yet: I’m supposed to inject myself four times a day but manage it twice at best, largely with the result that I feel pretty crap all the time. Last summer I was hospitalised twice and suffered a crippling bout of depression. I guess I am exactly the sort of person that this blog is supposed to be reaching out to: I’ve got the disease, I’m crap at dealing with it, and I like blogs. I hadn’t heard about it though, which renders it pretty useless. Still, now I do, thanks to Tom, I’ll engage with it, leave a comment or two and see what happens. The blog idea is nice, but I wonder whether more of a social network type approach would be better – linking me up with other diabetics who have been through similar issues.

My officials have been working up draft guidance on how public servants can use social media. And the Power of Information Report made a series of recommendations about this too.

I want the taskforce to ensure that the COI and Cabinet Office produce a set of guidelines that adheres to the letter of the law when it comes to the civil service code but also lives within the spirit of the age. I’ll be putting some very draft proposals to the taskforce to consider later this week.

Here, here. I wrote in the wake of the Civil Sef affair that Public servants should be blogging, or engaging through other social networking tools. Public servants are too often characterised as faceless bureaucrats and the more that can be done to dissuade people from that notion, the better. But to get more public sector workers being open, they need to feel safe to do so, and sensible policies will help to do that.

We will also look at, and learn from, the way people are communicating with each other.

The 19th century co-operative movements had their roots in people pooling resources to make, buy or distribute physical goods. Modern online communities are the new co-operatives.

This is a point I have been meaning to blog about for some time: the relationship between online collaborative communities and the co-operative movement. The point is that while the tools are new, the relationships aren’t, and people have been working together to tackle problems since the year dot. What the tools do is make the process easier and more transparent and because they also make it easier to do without forming institutions or organisations, they also remove some of the political undercurrents too. More needs to be written on this, I think.

And when we know we get a delivery channel right we should use the ‘collaboration’ part of Ed’s vision to best effect, to gain, social leverage, as Professor Shirky would say.

Let me use a recent story to illustrate this point. I recently registered my local Labour Party with groupsnearyou.com. This is a new site provided by the MySociety people. It’s a site for people who run small scale community focused groups.

Through the site, I found West Bromwich Freecycle.

I’m the Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East and I didn’t know about an important recycling initiative going on in my own patch. This information now means that a bag load of clothing for a small child and a habitat sofa are about given a second chance to give pleasure.

Nice example, not least because of the use of an existing network to connect with others. The delivery channel – in this case the connecting of local groups – does not therefore need to be created by the government, or the Labour Party, rather by interested folk, doing things in an open and collaborative way like MySociety does.  This taps into another long running question of mine which asks whose responsibility is it to push for improvements in civic life using social tools? Is it the government, at whatever level? 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 – individuals pushing the boundaries and demonstrating where the value is, with the institutions following up once the point has been proved. Organisations like MySociety can help but they aren’t necessarily needed

Overall, a great speech to hear from a cabinet minister. I look forward to seeing what happens next.