"Local government and linked data" at Online Information - Part 2

 by Martin Belam, 10 December 2010
"Life, the world, is a messy place, and that's a good thing..." - Chris Taggart

Yesterday I blogged the first part of my notes from a session at the Online Information conference about linked data and local government which featured Richard Wallis, Chris Taggart and Noel Hatch.

During the session, Wallis admitted that "no data is perfect", and Chris Taggart opened his talk by saying "I'm down there in the gutter, trying to solve some real world problems, and dealing with the reality of the data". He also said he describes himself as a veteran of the scene, because he has been doing this since June 2009.

Taggart said that he was not doing OpenlyLocal.com for the sake of it, but for genuine reasons - our lives are governed by data. He argued we always have been, citing the Domesday Book. It goes further now, as increasingly our lives are data. He believes that by opening data the state can keep itself relevant, and able to work better against corporate interests. As he put it, every time it comes down to a local planning application, who has the best data about the case law and precedents about Tesco: Tesco or the local authority they are up against?

He also gave a great rationale for why releasing data is likely to fuel innovation and new services:

"The people who own the data are always the last people to spot opportunity, because they are working it with it day to day in a particular context."

In that sense, Noel Hatch is atypical, as he presented a raft of innovation around data from Kent County Council, which looked to have spotted lots of opportunities.

Like all of the panel, Noel stressed the cultural challenges. To some people, he said, when you mention open data, they immediately start thinking about USB sticks being lost in car parks. Kent County Council, however, have seen publishing data as a way of tackling disadvantage in the region, and in growing the local economy.

He was also keen to see people move beyond the typical charts and graphs of data visualisation. He held up the example of the Greater Manchester police tweeting their 999 calls - the raw data about call-outs was available as numbers in a CSV file, but it took the conversational tone of the tweeting to engage users and get press coverage.

Another reason for making data free was potential cost savings, Noel said, pointing to another press story about a schoolgirl who had devised a way to visualise energy waste. Instead of commissioning someone to build a tool at the expense of the taxpayer, freeing the data had allowed someone to build it for the benefit of all.

In Kent itself, they have been running hack days with students from the digital arts and engineering courses at the local University. They used Ning (when it was free) to seed ideas and connect people before the event. On the day they then brainstormed ideas and developed prototype apps that could be showcased back to the local government services that might benefit from them.

Noel's slides can be viewed here.

After the presentations, there was a question and answer session with the panel, and one of the most interesting issues raised was the possibility that opening up data would lead to "bad analysis". Richard Wallis thought that probably the opposite was the case, as opening up the data also meant opening methodology up to scrutiny, and allowing the possibility of someone else to interpret the data.

Chris Taggart was more strident. He thought public bodies should be doing all they could to increase data literacy in the UK, which was currently very poor. He didn't see the media helping very much with that, indeed he said:

"The press have been using data badly for a long time to satisfy their own narratives"

And finally...

I didn't get to many of the sessions at Online Information which was a shame, although I did enjoy the ones I dropped in on. The exhibition space seemed much smaller this year - I guess as the effects of recession are felt. The snowy weather can't have helped footfall on the trade stands either. It was noticeable that the companies exhibiting were tending to be technology solutions providers rather than the publishers and content suppliers that used to appear. Nevertheless, even if you have only a passing interest in the information space, I'd always recommend registering at least for the free entrance to the exhibition and seminar programme. So maybe I'll see you there next year.

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