Do we need portals for open data?

After a quick sandwich lunch, people attending the Open Data Camp in Cardiff were challenged to a debate. Is a single point of access, aka a portal, the best way to open up access to data sources?


Speaking for the debate was Giuseppe Sollazzo, who co-authored a report on the NHS and open data. “One of the things we have discovered is that there is a recommendation for a single point of access. I am not necessarily a fan of a portal, but at this point we have no other option.

“One reason is that for the organisation it helps to put some KPIs on what is happening.”

However, he acknowledged, one big question is how people will then find the portal and uncover the data that it contains.

Speaking against was Jeni Tennison from the ODI. She noted that early open data initiatives had often been focused on a portal, because this made it easier for governments and large institutions to get behind them. But, she argued, this may have been an error.  “You can end up with an under-resourced portal” that degrades over time, she argued.

The Portal Problem

Also, it was a mistake to think that just because people wanted somewhere to access data, it didn’t mean they all wanted the same place – or the same data. “There’s a bit of an issue of people wanting a moon on a stick,” she said. “Just because people want something, doesn’t mean it is possible.”

Which would matter less if there wasn’t an opportunity cost to creating a portal. “Portals are the alcoholic’s easy-quick fix, that don’t address the underlying problems in the life of getting access to data,” she said, to laughter.

Also, and fundamentally, Tennison argued that portals didn’t even work in their own terms. All the evidence is that when users set out to find open data sources, they do not start with a portal – they start with Google. “So all the evidence is that portals have made the problem of finding data worse not better, by removing the contextual information that would make Google search easier,” she said.

The confusion of diverse data sources

However, Sollazzo argued this was not the case. “If you Google for prescription data, you will get it from three different places, which is confusing,” he said. Also, Google would uncover a lot of broken links and other problems. A portal could address these issues.

Once the debate was opened to the floor, several participants suggested that portals could work when they held a specific data set, or information for a very specific use. There was less enthusiasm for portals that hold a lot of data sets.

One participant from a council argued that his authority’s portal was useful because it showed local people everything that it published and allowed them to browse this. But another argued that: “While we are all open data enthusiasts, we have to remember that most people have never heard of it.”

Portals: servants of the fat head

A portal was unlikely to serve “the long tail,” she suggested. A further participant argued that publishers should look at how Amazon worked to surface items and then other items that users might be interested in. “Something of a retail perspective could really help,” she said.

In a similar vein, another speaker said portals tried to do too much; to list data sources, and to release data. “We have the solution to [the first] already, and it is the web,” he said. Publishers should focus on their data and making sure they were using the standards that would make it useful.

A further speaker noted that while some users might want data sets, most open data users were looking to compile reports or other written material, including journalism. And what they needed was context: where had the data come from, why was it being released, how reliable was it?

Still, the first speaker reiterated his view that it was exactly these kinds of issues that a portal could help with. “Do we want the common people to understand open data, I’m not sure,” he said. “But if we do, how does removing the portal make it easier for them?”

From portal planning to true data management

In the final summing up, his initial opponent said she didn’t want to remove portals that did exist. Instead, she said, there was a need to recognise that open data had a range of users, who would find it in different ways, and that future publishers should look to make it easier to do that.

A “peacemaker” looked to bridge the gap. Perhaps, she suggested, “a portal might be necessary first stage in open data, but we have to work to make sure nothing stays still and people make better products, with better technology, so that everybody, wherever they come from, can engage with it.”

Fine, said the floor. But in that case, organisations would have to be persuaded to continue to invest in their portals and, just as significantly, “in a data management strategy.”


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