Better local government through open data

Local government seems to be in a perpetual state of competition – while the most efficient use of resources would be to collaborate. So how could open data help facilitate that?


One attendee talked about formalised co-ordination roles. There have been some pockets of good stuff: the Cabinet Office nominated over a dozen councils as their open data champions, with some mixed results. Redbridge’s data sharing platform DataShare, part funded by the LGA, seems to be well-liked by those who have used it. Some other user authorities are using it – but it’s often not as well implemented as the Redbridge implementation.

There’s a pan-London effort underway to get more charities sharing data – and using open data. It flows nicely with the London-wide effort to get more local authorities sharing open data. Data literacy is a core component of what they’re doing. If Redbridge is an example of best practice, then we should capture the for the training videos and other initiatives. The project is called The Way Ahead.

Data literacy is a key issue: IT has been decimated in many councils, and contractors are being pushed out by IR35. One council has a single guy struggling on, with the council not keen to even give him a licence to Tableau. There are loads of simple tools – like YouTube – we could use to spread knowledge in a cheap and easy manner.

Overwhelming workloads – can they be automated?

Another council is reporting 15,000 indicators to government. That’s got up in five years, as resources go down. FOI requests are going up. We need to find ways streamline some of these processes. Could chatbots help?

Would more open data reduce FOI requests? There’s some evidence that that’s the case. FOI is often used to trigger the publication of open data – but council could get out ahead of those requests, and reduce their workloads. However, as some attendees pointed out, a relatively small percentage of FOI requests are for anything that looks like structured data. It’s worth monitoring your requests for them – but it might not make as much difference as people hope.

Pointing people to the open data portal is a perfectly allowable response to FOI requests, and is a good example of cost reduction. Stats would be useful to prove the value of practice publication.

The journey to open data

Right now, we have a hodge lodge begging journey towards open data. Some councils do it because they’re embarrassed because they’re behind. Some are led there by activist members of staff. That’s one example of where competition could be useful – in motivating councils, as long as they don’t just chase “shinies” – pretty initiatives that make the council look good without necessarily creating value.

NESTA is running an open data pilot looking at house in multiple occupancy. That will be one for two major investigation this year.

One major problem is getting all the authorities to adhere to a set of common data models or standards. The more standards, the more reporting could be done through publication of ope data. We’ve ended up with bin data formats being defined by a single company in Barnsley.

Country open data file

Do we have an urban/rural divide? Does the work done by urban advocates transfer to rural areas? Many of the smaller councils just don’t have the resources or staff to do this. It’s mainly the metropolitan areas who still have those resources. That said, it’s usually key evangelists who get things done – if they leave, the efforts tend to fall apart.

One attendee comes from a rural area. He suggested we could focus on the biggest issues – like transport times or health care access. If it can help solve problems for communities, we’ll get more support.

The [cash] case for open source

Some bad choices are being made on IT; £12m on an ERP system for finances, and consultants, etc… We need to make the case for cheaper, simpler but more effective solutions. An US mayor set up an urban informatics team of three people – and tasked them with doing what they used to do with 30 with three as simply as possible – and that meant cheaper and open source software.

Is there an open source of Tableau? We should look at open source options first, even if we pay for some support. Some doesn’t scale to enterprise level – but much of it does. The biggest challenge is the expertise gap around open source tools – and that can lead to expensive consultants to fill the gap. Sometimes the commercial packages can be more cost-efficient.

A good starting point? Adopting the local government digital standards.

Session notes

One thought on “Better local government through open data

  1. Hi – I’d like someone to answer the question “Is there an open source of Tableau?” – that would be very hand to know!


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