Open data, communities, and the role of gamification

After lunch on day one, there was a discussion of how open data can work for communities, and people who are not data people, led by Pauline Roche from Digital WM Productions and Sam Milsom from Open Data Manchester.

Pauline explained that her company works with communities, and wants them to be able to say why data is important. While Sam said his organisation runs a whole programme for communities to help people find information that matters to them. “I am interested to have a conversation about what people want and what is out there,” he said. “Because I think there is a lot of information available that should be of interest to local communities.”

Data changes the questions people ask

Sam talked about some of the projects he has worked on. One involved teaching local councillors to use publicly available data sources, such as those published by the ONS. “I Ioved hearing the stories,” he said. “We had one councillor saying he didn’t realise how deprived his ward was, because it contained a few big houses. While another was outraged by the levels of bike-theft he uncovered.”

Another involved teaching local people to do traffic counts. This often started with a perception that traffic was terrible. The counts might show it wasn’t, but it was fast. “Having the data could change the kind of questions that they asked.”

What else had people done? Sam asked. What had they found useful? What techniques could be used to get people to engage? Pauline said one of the things her company did was to work with communities on wikipedia entries. “It sounds really basic, but it’s important to look at what is being said, and to tell people how they can change that.”

Getting and maintaining parcipation: tips and tricks from leaderboards to badges

Terence Eden, who runs the Open Benches project to enable people to record memorial benches, said a powerful driver was a “leaderboard” – to let people could see how many posts they had made, or how many photos they had uploaded. “Creating friendly competition was a really good thing to do.”

This led to a lively conversation on the role of badges, rewards and other forms of gamification. Although Sam wondered if there were any dangers. For example, he said Open Data Manchester has done a lot of work to find out the routes that people take. The council wanted to know about routes to school, and how traffic affects them. They used tap technology to collect data – which was fun, and encouraged kids to interact with data – but ran the danger of distorting the information, because the kids would go out of their way to get more taps.

There was also concern that these techniques cost time and money, and can be hard to maintain over time. “We often find that there is a really useful data set that was developed eight years ago, and has not been developed since,” one speaker said. Pauline agreed that resourcing was a problem. “We have never had the resourcing that the private and public sector have had, and that makes me sad.”

Is experience enough?

Some projects generate at least some of their own funds. Linda Humphries said she had bought a t-shirt to support Open Benches. She also said that she was motivated to fill in gaps in its database: and used this as a reason to go for walks.

Which enchanted another speaker, who felt that “giving people a lovely experience” was a great reason and reward for getting them involved in data projects. Jez Nicholson said Open Street Map started with this kind of ethos. Although another speaker pointed out that this could also distort data, because only a “small bunch of people” with a particular interest might get involved (Open Street Map might not be great for capturing information about deprivation, he suggested).

Sam said there was some interest in government in providing direct rewards to people to widen participation. For example, he asked the group whether they thought that giving people an incentive to walk places, like money off their council tax, would work.

A further participant suggested the open data community should be doing more to get young people involved. Many would be much more interested in learning about open data and what could be done with it than traditional maths, she suggested.

Pauline agreed that she was “all for open data being fun.” Other rewards and incentives for taking part in community open data projects can clearly work – but need careful thought.

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