“But nobody cares about Open Data”
This thought was voiced in many guises during last weekend’s Open Data Camp. Obviously not entirely true, as demonstrated by the 100+ people who had travelled to deepest Hampshire for the first UK camp of its kind, or the many more people involving themselves in Open Data Day activities around the world. However the sentiment that, while many of us are getting extremely excited about the potential of Open Data in areas including government, crime and health, the rest of the planet are ‘just not interested’ was very clear.
As a non-technical person I’m keen to see ways that this gap can be bridged.
Open Data Camp was a 2-day unconference that aimed to let the technical and making sit alongside the story-telling and networking. There was also lots of cake!
Open Data Board Game
After a pitch from session leaders we were left with that tricky choice about what to go for. I attended a great session led by Ellen Broad from the Open Data Institute on creating an Open Data board game. Creating a board game is no easy task but has huge potential as a way to reach out to people. Those behind the Open Data Board Game Project are keen to create something informative and collaborative which still retains elements of individual competition.
In the session we spent some time thinking about what data could underpin the game: Should it use data sets that affect most members of the general public (transport, health, crime, education – almost a replication of the national information infrastructure)? Or could there be data set bundles (think environmental related datasets that help you create your own climate co-op or food app)? Or what about sets for different levels of the game (a newbie version, a government data version)?
What became clear quite early on was there was two ways to go with the board game idea: one was creating something that could share the merits of Open Data with new communities, the other was something (complex) that those already interested in Open Data could play. Setting out to create a game that is ‘all things to all people’ is unfortunately likely to fail.
Discussion moved away from the practicalities of board game design to engaging with ‘other people’. The observation was made that while the general public don’t care about Open Data per se they do care about the result it brings. One concrete example given was Uber which connects riders to drivers through apps, now with mainstream use.
One project taking an innovative approach is Numbers that Matter. They are looking to bypass the dominant demographic (white, male, middle class, young) of technology users and focus on communities and explore with them how Open Data will affect their well-being. They’ve set out to make Open Data personal and relevant (serving the individual rather than civic-level participant). Researchers in the project began by visiting members of the general public in their own environment (so taxi drivers, hairdressers,…) and spoke to them about what problems or issues they were facing and what solutions could be delivered. The team also spent time working with neighbourhood watch schemes – these are not only organised but have a ‘way in’ with the community. Another project highlighted that is looking at making Open Data and apps meaningful for people is Citadel on the Move which aims to make it easier for citizens and application developers from across Europe to use Open Data to create the type of innovative mobile applications they want and need.
The discussion about engagement exposed some issues around trust and exploitation; ultimately people want to know where the benefits are for them. These benefits needs to be much clearer and articulated better. Tools like Open Food Facts, a database of food products from the entire world, do this well: “we can help you identify products that contain the ingredient you are allergic to“.
“Data is interesting in opposition to power”
Keeping with the theme of community engagement I attended a session led by RnR Organisation who support grassroots and minority cultural groups to change, develop and enhance their skills in governance, strategic development, operational and project management, and funding. They used the recent Release of Data fund, which targets the release of specific datasets prioritised by the Open Data User Group, to support the development of a Birmingham Data and Skills Hub. However their training sessions (on areas including data visualization, use of Tablau and Google Fusion tables) have not instilled much interest and on reflection they now realise that they have pitched too high.
Open Data understanding and recognition is clearly part of a broader portfolio of data literacy needs that begins with tools like Excel and Wikipedia. RnR work has identified 3 key needs of 3rd sector orgs: data and analysis skills; data to learn and improve activities; and measurement of impacts.
Among the group some observations were made on the use of data by community groups including the need for timely data (“you need to show people today“) and relevant information driven by community needs (“nobody cares about Open Data but they do care about stopping bad things from happening in their area“). An example cited was of a project to stop the go ahead of a bypass in Hereford, they specifically needed GIS data. One person remarked that “data is interesting in opposition to power“, and we have a role to support here. Other questions raised related to the different needs of communities of geography and communities of interest. Issues like the longevity of data also come in to play: Armchair Auditor is a way to quickly find out where the Isle of Wight council has been spending money, unfortunately a change in formats by the council has resulted in the site being comprimised.
What is data literacy?
Nicely following on from these discussions a session later in the day looked at data literacy. The idea was inspired by an Open Data 4 Development research project led by Mark Frank and Johanna Walker (University of Southampton) in which they discovered that even technically literate individuals still found Open Data challenging to understand. The session ended up resulting a series of questions: So ‘what exactly is data literacy’? Is it a homogeneous set of expertise (e.g. finding data), or is the context everything? Are there many approaches (such as suggested in the Open Data cook book or is there a definitive guide such as the Open Data Handbook or a step by step way to learn such as through School of Data. Is the main issue asking the right questions? Is there a difference between data literacy and data fluency? Are there two types of specialism: domain specialism and computer expertise? And can you offset a lack of data expertise with better designed data?
The few answers seemed to emerge through analogies. Maybe data literacy is like traditional literacy – it is essential to all, it is everyone’s job to make it happen (a collaboration between parents and teachers). Or maybe it is more like plumbing – having some understanding can help you understand situations but then you often end up bringing in an expert. Then again it could be more like politics or PHSE – it enables you to interact with the world and understand the bigger picture. The main conclusion from the session was that it is the responsibility of everyone in the room to be an advocate and explainer of Open Data!
“Backbone of information for the UK”
The final session I attended was an informative introduction to the National Information infrastructure an iterative framework that lists strategically important data and documents the services that provide access to the data and connect it to other data. It intended as the “backbone of information” for the UK, rather like the rail and road networks cater for transport. The NII team began work by carrying out a data inventory followed by analysis of the quality of the data available. Much decision making has used the concept of “data that is of strategic value to country” – a type of ‘core reference data’. Future work will involve thinking around what plan the country needs to put into play to support this core data. Does being part of the NII protect data? Does the requirement for a particular data set compel release? More recently there has been engagement with the Open Data user group / transparency board / ODI / Open Knowledge and beyond to understand what people are using and why, this may prioritise release.
It seems that at this moment the NII is too insular, it may need to break free from consideration of just publicly owned data and begin to consider privately owned data not owned by the government (e.g. Ordnance Survey data). Also how can best practices be shared? The Local Government Association are creating some templates for use here but there is scope for more activity.
Unfortunately I could only attend one day of Open Data Camp and there was way too much for one person to take in anyway! For more highlights read the Open Data Camp blog posts or see summaries of the event on Conferieze and Eventifier. The good news is that with the right funding and good will the Open Data Camp will become an annual roving event.