Lessons learned from open data use

Lessons learned from open data livecaptured

Google Docs notes from this session

Councils have really good data sets: but they can find it hard to find out what local communities would like to do with it. The ‘Lessons Learned’ session packed a break-out room with Open Data Camp participants keen to share their issues, ideas, and solutions to the problem.

The session was opened by Lee Dodds of Bath Hacked, who is working with council and local community to use data “for benefit of those who live in the area and those who visit us.”


With him was Martin Howitt, of the Open Data Institute Devon, who is also an IT architect at Bristol Council, which has an open data platform, and wants to know how best to make it useful.

“I want to how to engage people with the data life of the city and of Devon,” he said. “I may be barking up the wrong tree, in which case I want to know that. But if not I want to know what works.”

Solving a city’s worries

One participant responded: “One of the great things I have seen in Glasgow, which came at it from the direction of the problems that people wanted solved; so they ended up with things like intelligent street lights that would turn on and off according to how people were using the area.” Martin: “So how did they do it?” Participant: “They did it by looking at drivers for things that were worrying the city.”

Another participant suggested the council had spoken with local councillors and also “sent students out to Easter House. Those that came back alive had great ideas.” However, the same speaker recognised that a problem is that “if people are suffering vandalism or whatever they don’t immediately think ‘what I need is a really great data set’.”

Lee said this got to the heart of the problem. In response, Bath Hat had tried making its activities more practical. “We have tried hack days and getting people to make stuff: and on the last one we asked local groups, with an environment focus, to come along and tell us their problems so they could tell us what would be most effective.”

Demystify data

Another participant suggested that Sheffield was focused on refugee groups, and looking at user stories, and using these to identify data that would be appropriate to their needs. Various participants stressed that when undertaking this kind of work it was important to “demystify” data and explain basic concepts, such as spreadsheets, and to contextualise their use. Storytelling was suggested as a particularly useful tool.

Participants also stressed that it was important to go back to communities and show that something had happened as a result; but Martin said this was difficult. For instance, he said that in Plymouth the council had opened up some planning data and offered prizes to local schools for using it.

Getting publicity for data projects

One item that came out of it was a tool to enable people to discover historic trees. “They tried to go back and get people to blog about it and publicise it, but it was really difficult. So far, we’ve only had one blog post, and that was written by us.”

Participants suggested that traditional media, such as local papers could help, as could focusing on “controversial topics”. But at the end of the day, most agreed, the best approach was to find groups who were already trying to solve problems and then focus on working with them. Expecting people in general to be interested in the council or its data was unlikely to work.

“One of the best projects that we did was toilets,” said one participant. “We built something and took it to the local mums’ groups and they loved it because they wanted to know where they could take their kids to have a pee.”