Open Government Data event

On Thursday, 12th January, I attended a talk in London about Government Open Data. The speaker was Andrew Stott, former Director for Digital Engagement for the UK Government.

Two years on from the launch of data.gov.uk Andrew Stott reviewed the achievements of the transparency and open data programme so far, the lessons learned and the challenges and opportunities for the future. In addition to stimulating innovative uses of government data by business and society the programme has highlighted issues about the use of information within the public sector and about the relevant skills to do so effectively, and implications for the design of public sector IT services and systems.

The event was held at the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT headquarters. About 25 people attended (of which only 3 were women).

Andrew started by giving an overview of Open Data, from its beginnings with Tim Berners-Lee calling for governments and companies to disclose their ‘raw data now’, then providing some examples of Open Data projects, both in the UK and overseas.
Interesting enough, one of the examples Andrew provided was the City of Vancouver Open Data project. This is interesting because my colleague Steve Grange, Web Project Manager in my team, won the SOCITM Graham Williamson Challenge Award and is now on a trip to Canada, working alongside the web team at the City of Vancouver council, for a month.

Back on the topic, there are over 200 government Open Data websites worldwide.
In the UK, policies such as ‘The Power of Information (2007)’, ‘Power of Information Taskforce (2009)’, and ‘The Plan for Growth (2011)’ were the drivers to start opening up data, with the prospect of adding new economic and social value to this valuable asset.

The Vickery study showed that opening up government data can bring all sort of direct and indirect gains in the order of billions of pounds.
One way of that happening is providing the opportunity for new businesses to emerge. Business Intelligence solutions, real-time hospital and transport information, and planning applications information are just some of the examples how business can be made around Open Data.

Another topic of discussion is the perception that Open Data is a public asset and therefore taxpayers should have free access to it. It encourages more involvement from citizens in the decision making processes both locally and nationwide. Also, with growing awareness by the public of the Government’s performance, there is an incentive for improving public services and create more robust policies to defend the citizen’s rights.

But as with everything, Open Data has its drawbacks. Freedom of Information (FOI) requests cost a lot of taxpayers’ money and some people abuse this right they have. Also, sensationalist journalism may use data out of context, deriving the wrong conclusions (a common ‘danger’ with the use of statistics too).
These, however, do not in any way overcome the benefits of Open Data. Open Data’s benefits are immense, in theory, and as the Open Data movement becomes more established, the practical benefits will show in increasing numbers and ways that we might not envisage yet.
Making raw data available also encourages people to ‘think’ more for themselves, rather than rely solely on someone else’s analysis and opinions.
Furthermore, the emergence of data journalism encourages for a more transparent government and all the democratic benefits this brings.

Starting an Open Data project can be as complicated or as simple as one makes it. It doesn’t require complex IT solutions, heavy investment or a big team. It requires mostly top-level political support, a change of culture (to stop the ‘data hugging’ effect), and a pragmatic approach to publishing data.
Being afraid of mistakes can hinder progress. Andrew Stott advises public bodies to start publishing whatever they got and learn and improve along the way.
Getting started is the hardest bit, but once the wheels are set in motion, going forward is the only way. As Andrew said:

Overcome obstacles practically
by doing,
not debating.

Cambridgeshire County Council has started a Open Data venture.

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