Open data: we can’t just rely on developers

Developers can’t be the only markets for open data sites – communities and individuals may need to use data in ways that developers, markets and funders don’t understand.

Charles Arthur in the Guardian’s technology blog today reposted excerpts from Tom Steinberg’s post on the future of Data.gov, a debate elsewhere in the open data community about what could be done to make more people care about its data, and Steinberg’s view that this is entirely the wrong question.

I think that it’s only partly the wrong question. I’ve actually read TS’s original post several times and I still can’t decide whether I agree with him or not overall.

TS says:

“Data portals shouldn’t be measured on traffic and number of users”

I agree. They are never going to be of mainstream popular appeal. However, if people don’t use data portals because they’re clunky or incomplete then it’s defeating even the most modest purpose it has. This is certainly a challenge for UK government, and a design question we’re talking about here in Brighton.

Open data policy matters because it reduces barriers to people with bright ideas from creating goods and services that make the world a bit better, either socially or economically.

Yes, but we need to be aware that the ‘people with bright ideas’ may not necessarily have the tech skills to use raw data, and the bright ideas themselves may not be the sort of money-spinning or grant-funded ventures that allow bright people to employ data wizards.

In my view open data policy also matters because it can help communities hold government to account. I am resisting commenting here on sound-bites about armchair auditors, or discussing about whether they can ever replace the work of the Audit Commission, but the broader point is true.

We should be ‘fiercely focussed on enabling the next generation of entrepreneurs and story tellers to do their mass-market magic’

Hmm, this is where I start to disagree a bit more… To my mind this begs several questions:

  • Who are the next generation of entrepreneurs and story tellers, and what if they happen not to be techies?
  • Are we taking ‘mass-market magic’ literally here – what if the data need is among a tiny group, with no commercial or funding-viable model?
  • And why only focused on competition and profit? Of course, any product, social or commercial needs a market, but the consumer and the customer aren’t always the same.

I care about information, about open data (and opening data) and about how it can be used. However, I am not a developer, or a statistician, I would not know what to do with a 700 line spreadsheet. I’d probably print it out and make a giant pirate hat out of it.

I am a policy type who cares about social justice and believes that the voluntary and social enterprise sectors can have a central role in making communities better. Open data is a potentially really important part of this, but not if the only way it can be used it by filtering it through a set of technical experts or developers – that’s too much like what we have today.

Projects such as DataBridge start from the belief that data without context and without tools to use it is actually disempowering, and the conviction that there is significant potential benefit in working with the voluntary, community & social enterprise sectors to better use open data themselves. People and communities should be able to contribute to a local open data ecosystem, where service data, spend data and sector insight can help produce better overall information, and this is not going to happen without data being accessible to meet needs that are identified within communities – not by the market or by funders.

Charles Arthur finishes with “So the question isn’t how you get more people to use data.gov. It’s how you get the right people using it. And you do that, of course, by demonstrating how useful free, open data is. Over to you, developers….”

I would completely agree with him, if the ‘right people’ didn’t mean just developers.

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11 replies on “Open data: we can’t just rely on developers”

  1. Great thoughts, Anthony. This is something that challenges me regularly in growing LinkedGov; we want the data and platform to be useful for all kinds of possibilities. This should include:
    – commercial products
    – clearer policy direction and more informed decision-making
    – improved public services
    – public sector efficiencies
    – campaigning and activism
    – transparency and accountability
    – loads of things we haven’t thought of yet.

    This last point has been on my mind a lot this week; we want to build LinkedGov in such a way that it will make possible all sorts of new things (beyond the limits of our own little imaginations). We want to be analogous to the Web itself, not a specific web site. It means thinking about everyone involved in those activities in that list above, plus leaving the door wide open for anyone we haven’t thought of. A challenge, but an activity well worth it.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Hi Hadley,
    Glad you enjoyed it! And, yes, it’s the ‘loads of things we haven’t thought of yet’ that make the broadest involvement possible so important.
    Jo

  3. Hi Jo,
    My apologies- I obviously jumped to the conclusion that this was Anthony’s post. That will teach me to read the header properly!
    Great thoughts, and much appreciated. Thanks again. 🙂
    Hadley

  4. Jo,

    Good post. I’ve been arguing for a while that we need to look at the whole spectrum of ways data is used, from people just finding a fact in a spreadsheets (the highlighter pen on the printed spreadsheet is one of the simplest and most widely used visualisation tools I know of!), through to service managers browsing through specific datasets or presenting from them to secure funding, and to developers building ‘mass market’ things with data.

    It’s certainly right to say “The question isn’t how you get more people to use data.gov.uk”, or “the question isn’t how many people are using it?” but I think the right questions may be far more along the lines of:

    * How far are sites like data.gov.uk, directly, or through intermediaries, democratising access to data and information of civic importance?

    * How far are sites like data.gov.uk acting as catalysts of culture change: encouraging a more open-by-default position for publishing data?

    * How far are sites like data.gov.uk, directly, or through intermediaries, increasing awareness of available data, and use of data in informed policy making and practice?

    Alas I’m not sure these are the questions being asked or evaluated against at the moment…

  5. “Who are the next generation of entrepreneurs and story tellers, and what if they happen not to be techies?”

    I don’t think it matters whether or not the person with the ideas is technical or not, as long as they can find the right technical people to be able to help investigate and implement their ideas. There’s no reason that projects leveraging open data need to be one-man-band projects 🙂 So the question might be how do we allow these kinds of people to connect with one another easily?

  6. Hi Tim,

    The spectrum of users is a good way of looking at it, plus the question of who’s not (currently) there.

    Your 3 questions are absolutely right. There’s also a point about leadership, who / what else prompts these questions, and who thinks about and contributes to answers. (All of us, I think, in varying degrees)

  7. Hi Steve,

    Good point, and connecting people with ideas and different skills is really important, especially across sectors. I just think that there is a risk that open data continues to be very niche unless there’s a degree of cross-over. This is the ‘gap’ we’re looking at with databridge.org.uk

    Thanks for your comment,
    Jo

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