Engaging with open data users

What are the best ways to engage with open data users?


DEFRA did a Bristol user group meeting – and most of the people who turned up weren’t actually using it. They were interested, so they were only potential users. The link came through ODI Bristol, and marketing on Twitter and Eventbrite. How do you find those people otherwise? Getting in the room with people is so important.

Sometimes, you go to a government website, find some data you’ve been using, and have some questions about it. And too often you have no idea who you should be engaging with. Knowing who you should be talking to is the very first steps. Should that be a named person or a “opendata@…” e-mail address? It’s probably the latter, because of staff turnover and specific open data expertise.

There’s a 10 day window in Northern Ireland for government departments to re[pond to open data request, be the response be positive or negative. There’s no requirement to deliver in that window, but just to indicate if it’s coming or not. The request and response process is public, so others can engage with it. This could be a useful model for others, especially if it was combine with the same process for freedom of information requests.

Online and face-to-face engagement opportunities

A related idea was make the open data available through online forums. That inherently opens up the opportunity for users – and potential users – to leave questions and feedback. It’s slightly geeky, so might be limiting things to the developer audience, but it does work. They use Discourse.

Plymouth holds focused groups around the release of core pieces of open data. They’ve seen the groups grow over time as they continue holding them. There’s an opportunity here to link live events with online forums – and to link up with other meet ups that have people who might be interested in the open data being published. Arts organisation and the charity sector are good at this – can we learn from this?

Perhaps focusing on the topic – for example, flooding – rather than the data. That way you might get both flooding nerds and data nerds in the room, and start some really useful conversations. Indeed, the idea of centring discussions around desired outcomes – flood planning, or monitoring politicians with bots – is likely to widen engagement more than focusing on supply.

Who pays? Who plays?

Who pays for all of this? Local authorities are cost-squeezed. Some government departments can find money from public engagement funds that emerges from, for example, planning responsibilities.

Sometimes open data people are the wrong people to do this, because hobbyists are constrained by how much free time they can give. Should we be more ruthless and demand that the people who work professionally with open data drive this harder? They have much more of a vested interest. It’s hard for people who make jam at Christmas to persuade others to become full time jam makers…

Engaging with politicians

And that’s a key problem: if politicians don’t see the demand for open data, they won’t push for it. If The Guardian or, worse, The Daily Mail, run a story on it, or from it, they will suddenly get much more interested.

We need prodders.

The civil service can prod from within, the public from outside. But we need these prodders. Accidental leaks too journalists have led to some action – but that’s risky for the civil servants involved.

The social media community have had success with social media surgeries. Could we try open data surgeries? (Blogger’s note: There’s some history of fusing the two already…)