Getting Better Open Data at national, regional and local levels

The UK is amongst the best in the world at releasing Open Data at a national level – but the same can’t be said at other parts of government. What can be done?

Could it be that the data at lower levels is less accessible? For every piece of valuable data, there’s at least one local authority doing it well, but rarely more than a couple. For example, around 100 local authorities have published business rates data, but several hundred more haven’t. The vast majority of local authorities haven’t published empty homes data.

Local authorities tend to publish when they are legally required too, and not at any other times. That’s because there’s a lack of understanding or acceptance of the benefits. Equally, those who do publish have see the value to them in doing so. The more urban LAs have taken a lead on this, possibly because there’s a concentration on tech-minded businesses to take advantage of it. That gentle but consistent pressure on them to publish data tends to bring them around. There’s less pressure on the rural LAs.

It’s probably multi-factorial, though. Yes, if there are people outside the LA asking for the data, that creates pull. Those teams that are actively using data in their work create a push of wanting to share the data. Those who are making decisions without data are reluctant to publish data… A chief executive who gets open data can change things dramatically — but problems can arise when they leave. Conversely, if the chief executive is opposed to transparency, it’s down to insurgents to try and get the data out.

Do we need a map of shame? Probably not – as it involves assumptions about what data is important. But many people in the room are quite keen on it. Maybe a better way to think of it would be as metadata, data about people publishing data.

Scotland gets a thumbs down for data release, and Northern Ireland a thumbs up. This may be because NI staff are given more freedom, suggested one attendee. Scotland published an Open Data strategy three years ago. They organised some training sessions, that were pretty good – but after that it petered out.

Clackmannanshire is probably the smallest authority in Scotland, and only really has one guy to handle their web and digital stuff. You need more skills and people before authorities like that can publish much data – or you need more automation. We probably need general technical up-skilling in local authorities. That said, UK local authorities are large by worldwide standards – even Clacks is over 50,000 people. We should be able to do better.

What are the regional blockers?

There are some significant blockers to making progress – including platform vendors who want significant money before they’ll allow data to come out in standard formats. The teams who own the data need to see the benefits to even have the conversation. Some of the UK-level arguments don’t work as well at a regional level. Wales doesn’t yet have a consensus about how to talk about open data, particularly around commercial exploration of open data or accountability via it. The lack of the business rates from local open data businesses — it goes to central government — is another disincentive.

One of the biggest benefits might be ion enabling different government departments or bodies to consume each other’s data. Sell it on internal reasons, not external ones. There might be some good lessons to be learn from other countries which are releasing more local open data.

The West Midlands Open Data Forum invites anyone interested – and has attracted three local authorities. In one case — Wolverhampton — a platform was built by two women, who also did training for people interested. Talking to local communities has made it a more egalitarian process. Astonishingly, Birmingham Council admitted that they didn’t know everything and accepted help from a smaller council.

ODI Leeds has monthly meet-ups – which gets some local authorities, but not others. They have some discussions about data formats and some skill sharing. Scale matters. Clacks on its own is not big enough – but could you work across central Scotland, and are resources?

The Local Digital Forum tries to use collaborative tools, like Google Docs, to get LAs into the habit of working collaboratively,

However, a couple of attendees gave examples of big, well funded (£20m) projects delivering, essentially, nothing, for a whole range of reasons. There are issues around sustainability and project thinking, which led to no real updates of data. Perhaps the best approach would be to cherry-pick the best tactics from multiple projects, while learning from the mistakes of failed projects.

Could you use challenge-based funding as an opportunity to force the winning bodies to publish not just Open Data but in good, usable formats? Yes – but remember the failures mentioned above. The ODI is working on scaling local projects, and is working on connecting local councils together. There’s a project on replicating good practice from other councils.

One of the complications is the danger of local authorities being hit over the head with things from the data – but equally, in terms of democratic responsibility, local journalists and activists are calling out for genuine and useful data to support their work.

[Session Notes]