Data Mill North: 'Promoting open data is a bit like a sales job'

With the 2016 Open Data Awards just around the corner, we catch up Stephen Blackburn from Data Mill North, a finalist in the Publisher category, about how they promote open data and bring its benefits to communities in Leeds.

The Open Data Awards celebrate innovation and excellence in open data across the world. Hundreds of inspiring people and organisations have been nominated. The awards will be held on 1 November 2016 at the BFI Southbank. Explore all nominees and finalists and follow #OpenDataAwards for updates on the night.


Data Mill North

@DataMillNorth null

Hi Stephen! What do you do, in a nutshell?

I lead a small team at Leeds City Council who manage Data Mill North on a daily basis. We promote open data across the organisation (and city) and encourage and work with services to open up their data.

The role is a bit like a sales job – some people get what we’re trying to do and jump straight in, while others need a little more convincing. But that’s fine, because we’re a passionate and enthusiastic bunch! We now promote use of the Data Mill to organisations across the North of England. Working collaboratively brings about economies of scale, delivers even greater value to a wider range of citizens and provides a platform where we can look to publishing to common standards and formats.

What first got you excited about open data?

This work never stands still and that’s what I find interesting about it. Opening up data has a number of drivers depending on who you are: reducing Freedom of Information requests; enabling new and innovative service design and delivery; new analysis, websites and apps; understanding our cities and environment better; providing an economic stimulus – I could go on.

What really excites me is that I can see real results from opening up data, whether that be seeing the number of FOIs reducing or working with developers to create an app that delivers new services to our citizens. In the course of this work I’ve had the privilege to work with some amazingly talented and enthusiastic people. Long may it continue.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

Cultural change is still the biggest barrier, though this is getting easier as our work (and its benefits) become more widely known. There are still pockets where data is collected for a specific reason, however, and the concept of opening it is still alien.

But this this gives us energy to promote the benefits of our work and what it can mean for services, citizens and communities, and those who wish to view and re-use the data. It can be challenging at times, but it is rewarding when eventually we make a breakthrough and get some previously unpublished data out into the world.

What kind of open data would you like to see more of?

There are a number of conversations taking place in Leeds at the moment around community asset mapping and community resilience.

When the conversation turns to data, it is clear that in most cases they’re all taking about the same data. I see a community asset as a person, a place, a building, a project or a group. Wouldn’t it be great if we all knew much more about our communities: what’s going on and where? What we can contribute to and get involved in? Where to go in case of an emergency?

There’s a lot of data out there – we need to work on identifying where it all is and then making it available in a consistent format. If we could do this, the payback would be tremendous.

What are you most looking forward to about the ODI Summit and Awards?

We're looking forward to hearing from great speakers and seeing how open data is being applied in other areas (and how we might be able to pinch some ideas!)

The awards will be held on 1 November 2016 at the BFI Southbank. Explore all nominees and finalists and follow #OpenDataAwards for updates on the night.