Open data in five years' time, a UKGovCamp debate

UKGovCamp 2013 was held in the IBM offices on the South Bank a few weekends ago. UKGovCamps are an amazing opportunity for those working in the general 'digital'arena, both within and around government to meet up and discuss their work.

It's an 'unconference', which means that there's no agenda before the day itself, anyone can suggest a session, and there are many parallel sessions at any one time. I suggested a session on 'Open Data in Five Years' Time', which was merged with Hadley Beeman's suggested session on evolving 'Open Data Communities'. The lively discussion touched on both utopian and dystopian visions of how open data might be used in five years' time; I'll try to pull out the key themes here.

Good outcomes

We first focused on the good outcomes that we want to aim towards. In five years' time, we should be able to use real-time information to help ussolve problems in an informed and interactive way. The information might come from a variety of sources: public, open data such as road networks, traffic flows and weather forecasts; data generated by the crowd such as tweets and other conversations; and data from things that we use in our lives, such as internet-connected cars, fridges and thermostats.

Government in particular will benefit from having a greater understanding of how to target services, by making better use of the information that it already has, but that rarely crosses authority boundaries. This is part of a general theme around different organisations within government being able to pick up and use information from each other to inform their decisions.

The promise is that data will be so integral to the services and products that we use that we won't think about "open data" as an end in itself. Instead, our focus will be on the problems that we want to solve, with open data being one of the means to those ends.

In this utopian vision, the general population is better informed both because they are better able to get hold of the data they need to answer their questions, and because they have an improved data literacy that enables them to understand that data. A knock-on effect of this is that a better-informed populace is better able to engage in (political) debates about how to address the challenges we face as a society.

What might stand in our way

An alternative outcome is that, while information is generally available for everyone, only some communities are able to use it. We could see a data divide between those who know how to analyse and visualise data to their advantage, and those who do not.

Equally, as policy shifts towards making data available, we may find unanticipated, and negative consequences arising from the additional transparency. An example recently has been that the additional data being made available aboutspending on Government Procurement Cards has contributed to departments not using them, leading to government procuring products and services through other, non-transparent, channels.

It's also possible that, while recognising the utility of data, organisations seek to monetise it by restricting access rather than making it openly available for reuse. Just as we see subscription-based models for accessing content on the web, we may find organisations keeping their data behind pay-walls.

We might also see 'open data lite': data that is accessible to everyone, even in machine-readable form, but is not published under an open data licence and therefore cannot be reused in flexible ways. A current example might be flood alerts from the Environment Agency.

What we should do

One theme that emerged was around the power of procurement in shaping whether and how open data is made available. Public authorities can shape the market by selecting suppliers whose products automatically produce open data.

In addition, as we see more public-sector services being out-sourced to the private sector, getting open data back from these suppliers becomes an effective mechanism for monitoring their performance, and the contractual relationship between the local authority and the supplier provides an effective lever for ensuring they produce open data.

We discussed embedding requirements for open data into Requests For Proposals, and how this is easier now within government because there is defined terminology for open standards. Government needs to be a better informed and empowered customer, so that it can say 'yes, you can open that data'to reluctantincumbents and prospective providers. Government also needs to involve stakeholders in framing what open data should be made available.

In many cases, public authorities and citizens don't have the expertise to analyse the data that they have or can get hold of. We discussed the choice between building skills and building tools. This reflected a later session that was specifically about helping those in the community to get the best out of the data that was available. There are a range of options, and it's likely that all of them will have their place:

  • data literacy training as part of a citizenship curriculum
  • easy-to-use generic visualisation tools (Open Heat Map was recommended)
  • specialist tools designed for viewing particular data
  • external organisations providing analysis and visualisation services

The final theme was about the power of case studies that demonstrate a focus on particular problems, in which open data is simply one of a range of techniques employed to achieve those goals. These case studies need to be honest in describing what can be done, including describing how hard the process can be, both at a technical and a cultural level. Without this honesty, organisations who open up data may become disheartened when they find it is not easy. To be convincing, case studies also need to be deep, and to stand up to scrutiny from sceptics as well as believers.


My main reflection on this session, and indeed the rest of the day at UKGovCamp, was that the discussions around open data are becoming deeper and richer. There was a focus on impact — on employing open data as a tool to achieve a particular goal — and a focus on how we make open data truly for everyone, so that its benefits are felt outside the data geek circles. These themes resonate with the Open Data Institute's mission.

Many thanks to Dave, Steph, and the rest of the UKGovCamp 2013 team for making the day so enjoyable and worthwhile.