On Friday (10/07/15) I had the pleasure of attending 'Make it Better With Data: Sheffield' at Sheffield Town Hall hosted by the cities Better With Data Society and Sheffield City Council, with support from Capita and Socrata. The conference was one of the best I've been to for some time, the speakers were engaging and passionate.
It was impressive to hear from John Mothersole, Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council who set out the strategic imperative for embracing open data: "why wouldn't we" and to hear from non-government-organisations and small companies, including Boilerhouse, Podnosh and Better With Data, who are helping public bodies build communities around their open data and ultimately innovative open data based products, such as AirQuality+ and BriminghamHousingData.org, enabling better public services.
So what did I take-away from the day?
Open data is all about people, not open data people but the people who use the apps, websites, kiosks and even experiential art that can be built on open data. How we, as data professionals, engage with these people is probably the biggest challenge we face. In Defra it is one of the challenges we will give serious thought to as we ramp up our #OpenDefra data programme.
People are often more interested in the micro rather than the macro environment, particularly in terms of the physical environment (economics might be the exception that proves the rule!). Better with data's AirQuality+ project demonstrated how taking local air quality readings, combining it with data that is collected to meet Defra requirements and publishing it through standardised APIs and end points makes the data much more valuable locally. In Defra we need to be looking at the local data our delivery agencies hold as a priority, it's probably not as 'good' (whatever that means) as the national dataset's but it is possibly more valuable.
We need to define products and document them. Even if it's open data it needs to be packaged as a product and supplied with a specification, quality information, guidance on suitability etc. We really need a simple standard for this stuff and ideally if multiple organisations are producing data about the same thing they should subscribe to a common standard.
Finally data owners (i.e. us in government) should work collaboratively with organisations in government and beyond (particularly SME's outside government) this can enable us to address the often cited blockers and bring in new resources for comparatively low cost. Technology blockers can be overcome by focusing on the what and why (yes I mean the user needs) and taking an iterative approach to the how (the technical bit) - which doesn't always need to be delivered by us in government. What is more important is that the team is skilled, committed and have brought into and understand the importance of the what and why. Finally organisations are getting better at understanding Licensing and IP issues, more on how we are doing this in Defra soon.
As I've hinted above I'll be feeding what I've learnt into our #OpenDefra data programme, which is forming fast.