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Master Data Management

In UK, Drive for Open Data Still Lacks the Human Factor

Later this month the south-western English city of Bristol will unveil its first ever open data store, joining a growing band of towns across the world that have opened up their municipal data to the public. But what does this mean and what is driving it? An insatiable urge for transparent local government or a desire to solve real problems for local residents through technology?

It’s easy to be sceptical when talking about local authority initiatives. Often derided, rarely praised, local government has a reputation for being overly bureaucratic and, quite rightly, risk averse – we are, after all, paying for it. Yet here is something that is clearly forward-thinking, revolutionary even.

It has taken a while – more evolution than revolution. In 2006, The Guardian newspaper in the UK kick-started a campaign to free public data, claiming that making this information available could stimulate innovation. But it wasn’t until 2010 that the UK really got going with the Open Government Licence and the launch of data.gov.uk.

In December last year, Eric Pickles, the UK’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, issued a policy statement  requesting local councils to publish data, as part of the Government’s plan for a more transparent and accountable public sector. It’s been slow progress and what is clear is that this is no cakewalk.

“The technology is the easy bit,” says Tom Heath, the Open Data Institute’s (ODI) head of research in the UK. “The problem is people. It’s the human element that is the biggest challenge. It’s the legal components, licensing, training that slow everything down.”

It’s amazing that anything gets started.

Richard Speigal, chair of Bath Hacked, an independent open data hacking group based in the tourist magnet Georgian city of Bath that neighbours Bristol, has referred to the process as “like trying to nail jelly.”

The group is currently working closely with the local council and while there is willing and technical ability in abundance, there are some fundamental issues to address.

“Data sets vary massively in quality and everyone has different issues in terms of maintenance, documentation, privacy and bureaucracy. You have to be agile to be able to do this. If your approach isn’t agile, don’t start.”

So what is causing the problem at local level that is frustrating the developers?

According to Doug McLeod, a director at open data technology company Socrata, there is typically a reticence within local government to release data. Concerns over loss of control and data being taken out of context tend to hamper progress and getting the first dataset is a challenge.

“People tend to wait for someone else to volunteer their data sets first,” he says, hinting at nervousness within local authorities to commit. It’s not that they don’t want to commit, it’s just that commitment is an act, not a word.

It’s still early days and educating the data keepers is part of the process. McLeod should know. Socrata has been doing this for a while now and counts a number of UK councils (including West Sussex, Manchester and now Bristol) and US cities (such as New York City and San Francisco) as customers.

Socrata and its open source rival CKAN provide datastore platforms and a range of related tools - the building blocks upon which local government datasets can become open. Jointly they cover a lot of ground although CKAN, developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation has certainly cast its net a lot wider, helping to develop datastores in parts of Africa, Asia, South America and Europe.

But what does this really mean? When Bristol launches its imminent data store what will it mean to residents? What happened when East Anglia or West Sussex launched their datastores? What happens next, if anything?

Tom Cheesewright, a technology futurologist for Book of the Future, is, like many people, sceptical and concerned about public money.   

“Who, other than engaged city-hacker types, is going to make use of the data unless it is expressed in a form that is valuable? Without that the data is pretty exclusive, restricted to council managers and those with the technical knowledge or financial interest in doing something with it.” 

So what is being done with the data?

Heath from the ODI says that most of the work on data applications is sporadic with one-off solutions driven by hacking groups and small developers. Although this isn’t a problem, he says, it is short term and not scalable. He has a point. The examples are clever but niche and so far have little resonance with your everyday resident. Heath says that not until we have access to all local data sources, including community groups, third-sector healthcare, local hospitals, clubs and societies (“the soft infrastructure that helps Cities to function and contributes to quality of life”) can we truly start to build broad, scalable and universally useful applications.

But you have to start somewhere and there are, as you would expect, a mixed bag of applications, from standard-of-living apps, analysing local areas for crime rates, house prices and amenities, such as illustreets’ Explore England, through to live data on river levels, such as The Gauge Map from Shoothill — handy for knowing when to get out the sandbags, especially after the flooding earlier this year in Southern England.

A US company called Streetline has established a presence in a number of cities in the US and UK, offering live parking information via sensors for its Parker app, after collaborating with local authorities for data. It’s a grey area which has been met with mixed responses, yet it’s a tangible example, something residents can understand immediately.

But it doesn’t always have to result in an app. According to Cheesewright, the Spanish city of Santander tracks every parking space in the city but the council has used the data not to allow a commercial entity to build a paid app but to improve local information by installing a new range of very simple street signs that direct drivers to the nearest free space.

Less contentious is Ashley Massey, public information officer for the Oregon Marine Board, who has used open data to map resources for boating enthusiasts in Oregon. There are loads of similar stories but as yet there is not one killer app.

The demand for innovative use of open public data has been the driving force behind an IC Tomorrow (part of Innovate UK) competition announced in late August 2014, entitled The Connected Cities Innovation Contest. Digital startups and SMEs can secure up to £35,000 funding each by designing and developing applications that advance local communities, buildings, services and the environment.

IC Tomorrow outlined the social, environmental and economic challenges of urbanisation in the UK. Over £500m is currently being wasted in the UK from energy inefficient buildings it says, while London is the 15th most water-stressed city in the developed world. Also, 50,000 people die in the UK each year because of poor air quality. Furthermore, transport systems the world over are at breaking point and urban expansion is being hindered by lack of sufficient infrastructure to support growth.

Can open public data and some clever technology minds solve these kinds of issues? We hope they can of course but it’s a lot to ask, yet the sentiment is to be applauded; the public sector engaging the private sector to help it solve common issues. It is only through this sort of collaboration that we can start to make sense of the billions of gigabytes generated in the world each minute and use it to our advantage.

Can it be done, or are we dreaming? As Cheesewright says, “altruistic hackers can only ever do so much,” and the market seems haphazard and fragmented as a result. Perhaps more collaboration is needed across territories and not just across sectors? The EU of course thinks so and it funded the City SDK, putting its money where its mouth was in getting a number of cities to create a common toolkit for developing technology services based on public open data. Perhaps every country should have a common access point or a declaration of available open data like the Open Data Census in the US?

There is certainly willingness to make things work but this is not all altruism. Open public data is inexorably linked to the drive for smarter, connected cities, a market which Volker Buscher, director of consulting firm Arup and a member of the UK’s Smart Cities Forum, said last year is going to be worth over $400bn globally by 2020. Perhaps we just have to accept that to make things better we need to dangle financial carrots? As long as it doesn’t affect the quality of data of course.

When the doors to the data open, they need to stay open. There need to be checks and balances to ensure quality of data, supporting the notion of true transparency and not a concocted, edited form of the concept. It’s worth seeing how many local authorities and projects can adhere to Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s five stars of open data engagement and then we should make a judgement.

The bottom line is that we have come a long way since the mid-Noughties and the early demands for increased openness and free public data. Calls last year by the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (part of the UK’s Parliament) for governments to have a “presumption of openness” when it comes to public data still underpin the current mood – the public has a right to view and use public data.

Transparency and accountability are increasingly used terms in central and local government these days but they are meaningless unless we can view the data in formats that make it easy to understand what is going on.  It is happening slowly. The City of Kansas Performance Dashboard is just one example and is on the road to what the Berlin Open Data website claims is the ultimate aim: “Open data readable by humans and machines.”

 

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a freelance writer and communications consultant that has written about technology trends and issues for over 24 years for national newspapers, consumer and business magazines. He can be found on Twitter @mambjo.

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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