Expert panel/Q&A


An expert panel session at Open Data Camp 3 turned out to be less of a Q&A on the minutiae of data sets and their use than a passionate debate about the direction that the open data movement is taking.

There was concern that after much excitement – even hype – about the impact that simply releasing data sets could have, disillusion was setting in as decision making processes remained unchanged and communities remained unaware of the information sources available to them – and the impact this could have. The debate concluded with some passionate calls to make it easier to uncover data and to make it less ‘scary’, so that more people could use it.

Is open data headed in the right direction?

In the introductions, Giuseppe [Sollazzo] said he was concerned about this, and the first Q: was “Please expand on this?” A: Giuseppe: “Well, the idea was that government and so on would release all these data sets and lots of things would happen as a result. But it didn’t. The [MPs’ expenses] data tickled the Daily Mail but [most data] did not interest the normal person; and the data was not good enough.

So the question is how to make the data more relevant and how do we improve the quality of the data? How do we incentivise that if incentivising is the right thing to do? Do we say there is a standard and if you meet it the community will say it is good?”

Q: Lucy [Knight]: “It strikes me that communicating something salient and useful and relevant with [open data] is also important. So how do we take it to people and say ‘this is the issue, the story’ that it uncovers for policy makers or journalists or mums at my school gate? Because the point about hype is well made, and we should be past that and getting to some understanding of how to use and communicate.”

Is the open data movement holding people to account?

Q: Kal [Ahmed]: “People make decisions with stories all the time and they make decisions but we don’t know what data they use to make those decisions. So perhaps we should look at the decisions and then work backwards to say ‘show me the data’?”

A: Andrew [MacKenzie]: “It’s true we didn’t get the accountability bit. The government seemed to think these people would turn up and reinvent the economy, and that didn’t happen: why should they? So we are past the hype curve and in the trough of despair and what we need to get to is the plateau of productivity.

A: Giuseppe: “The idea was we would have transparency, but this is not likely to happen unless we move on. And the other thing is can we put data centrally where decisions are taken, because probably there are not the skills for people to take decisions based on hard data.”

A: Jerry [Clough]: “My issue with transparency is that people say ‘you can show us the data’ but ‘we are still going to make the decisions’ and what we need is two-way dialogue so it’s the data that starts to make the decisions.

“Because at a grass roots level we have the data that government and the NHS and so on hold but also the data that third sector organisations hold; and I want to see government asking for that and responding. Just releasing data doesn’t change the way decisions are made and I want to see a paradigm shift and releasing data sets making that happen.”

Reaching out to the community

Q: Pauline [Roache]: “To me, this talks about programmes for data literacy in the community? A: Lucy: “I think about what Trafford have done with Open Data Map; they run surgeries. To the normal person, open data sounds like maths, so they said ‘come along and tell us what the problem is you can’t get over’ and they have had people coming along and asking for data.

“It’s often been for funding bids, and they’ve been able to give them data, often from the Index of Multiple Deprivation, so they can say: ‘doing this will make this difference.’ So we’re back to it’s not about data itself, it’s about saying: ‘I want to see this change made in this way and the data backing that up.’

“We are all fans of open data, but we need to change the language to say it’s good because you can use it, and the group down the road can use it; it’s not a thing in a box, it is something everyone can get at.”

Asset registers and a Google for open data

Rob [Allen]: “Continuing this: my question is what is the best way to use my minister’s passion for open data [at DEFRA]. If it is there, what can we do with it?

A: Giuseppe: I think what [the Defra minister] is doing is amazing, but we need to pay attention to the data sets released and to look at accessibility, because it is hard to work through 9,000 data sets to find out what there is. So we need more discoverability and more community agencies to see what they can do with the data.

A: Andrew: Do you have an asset register, because if you do you can build a community of users. Even a partial list, or a note on how it is used internally and where to get help is a start […]

“There is a perennial issue with data discovery and we really need a guide to what is there and available. It’s also why we need technical standards for data discovery.”

A: Pauline: “Can I say libraries have been behind the curve on getting involved in open data: but they are opening up to this community. Librarians answer questions, they know how to find and reference information, they can find you what you want. So we should be supporting libraries to do that. Please: invest in local libraries to do this work.”

Q: Pauline: “Having said that, what other experts are there that we can work with?”: A: Andrew: “Can I try again with data discovery? We should be putting people to work to solve this programatically. Because we don’t have a Google, we don’t have a search engine, to pick this stuff out.”

A: Kal: “We need a curated approach, that will enable effective catalogues to be created; this would include tags and metadata and even thumbs up if you like it.

A: Jerry: “In the 1980s, the NHS created something called the NHS data model, and if you had something like that you could ask questions like ‘this data is missing’ or ‘this data should exist’.” A: Lucy Knight: “In local government there is a tool called LG Inform that takes data from local government and cleans it up and puts it out, and they are looking at some modelling.

“So you could start with that for city and borough and county and so on and ask what services they provide and then look at what data they should be providing. Also, local governments have asset registers; somewhere there will be a list of every data set they had, so you can go and ask where it is.” Q: Pauline: “Is anyone compiling a list of asset registers?” A: Lucy: “It could be done.”

A shift is needed: and open data needs to be less scary

Q: From the floor: “Listening to this debate, it sounds like there’s a lot of donkey work and nobody needs to do it. What they want is the insight.” Q: Andrew: “Yes. Nobody wants to put in the meta-data but we need it.”

A: Lucy: “And we need to make it less scary for the people who need it, so it becomes more of a resource. Let’s make open data less scary and say it is a thing that can be used to get things done.”