ODCafe – thank you and goodbye

Open Data Cafe

That is a wrap on our first ever open data cafe. This is a quick post with some reflections from me on how the process of running an online minimal viable unconference went and some of the themes that seemed to come through from the sessions on the day.

Our goal was to run a minimal viable unconference. The core gang of kind folks behind odcamp are all busy people and lockdowns are tough, we weren’t 100% sure if we should do something, but this idea of a minimal, lo-fi community event seemed to be so in keeping with what Open Data Camp was about, that it seemed like it could be a thing we might make work.

So. The headlines. 75 people joined us on a Saturday afternoon to talk about open data. This means the online version held its own in terms of attendance compared with the IRL classic camps. We ran the pitching and voting in the weeks coming up to the event. The pitch quality was high, but the volume was fairly low. We had to do a fair bit of nagging to get people to fill them in, but I think that as a process it is something that we could reuse if we run a similar event in the future (in the spirit of MVP, the pitches were in a google doc, the voting via a google form). On the day we used a Zoom call and then breakout rooms within Zoom with the permissions set so that users could move around between these breakout rooms as they wished (in classic rule of two feet style). I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, but I think this worked pretty well. It gave that important agency to people to find the talk that worked for them, with very little friction. We also ran things really short. Two blocks of thirty mins with an intro and outro. The whole thing was done within a couple of hours. Nice and simple.

So to the open data, state of the nation. The 8 sessions that ran were

We tried to build public services with open data. You won’t believe what happened next
Data community- what help and guidance do you need?
Open data wrangling and the thousand mile stare
Women and non-binary people in and on data
Open Data has failed/A USP for open data?
Data as Culture
Interpreting open data
Data beyond user needs, data beyond accountability, data as a political tool

This being the healthy mix of the essential topics (Like the sadly still vital session on the unthinking acceptance of the male as a default within data), the practical (what is “too many FOI’s”) and the theme that seemed to cut through this. What is the point? What is the reason for open data, has it failed, does anyone understand this stuff and is it making a difference? This being posted in a blog on a website about a unconference about open data perhaps gives some clues as to what I feel, but to me it seems like a healthy community when we hold ourselves to account and I am pleased we found a way to make sure these vital conversations can happen.

So this leaves me to do a final round of thank yous.

Thank you if you came along. Thank you if you took part, added some notes, gave some feedback and thank you for being an amazing community that makes this all worth while.

Thanks to Zoom for helping us out. Having access to all the tools made this happen and we are truly grateful for your kind support.

Thanks to Drawnalism for continuing to undertake such amazing work in capturing the very essence of what we do. This image by them describing a debate on the failure or success of open data is astonishing. More info about them and the way they work can be found on the Drawnalism website.

And finally, a thank you to the gang of folks who all volunteered to help make this happen. This is grass roots, making the web better stuff. It might not always be glamorous, but I could not be prouder to have this bunch of people being my friends. They are heroes and saving the world one CSV at a time.
image of a zoom video call showing the 14 people who organised the event

Looking at the feedback from the cafe, it seems like people have some interest in us doing something similar again. We will be in touch with details about this as and when we decide how that may play out. We are also interested in the concept of hybrid unconferences in the future where we mix online and in person events to try and be as inclusive as possible. We are not quite sure how this would work, but it is a really exciting idea. If you have thoughts, please do get in touch on twitter

ODCamp 7: Thank you and goodbye


And so, as night draws in, the latest Open Data Camp draws to a close. Thank you to all the sponsors, the camp organisers, and the campers. Open Data Camp moves around: it has now been in London, Aberdeen, Belfast, Cardiff, Bristol and Winchester. Where will it be next? That depends on… someone volunteering to take it on…

If you are interested in hosting the event, then get in touch. But, for now, catch up on all the blog posts, Tweet (using the hashtag #ODCamp), blog, and generally pass on all the good stuff from two great days. And we’ll see you at the next one.

Data Visualisation: making it work

An Open Data Camp 7 session on data visualisation, led by Ian Makgill. These are live-blogged notes.

Drawnalism: data visualisation

There is a lot of temptation to use really exciting visualisations. But 90% of the time, you end up with bar or line charts – because they work. If you have more than 20 data points along the x axis, you probably want a line chart, not a bar chart.




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ODCamp 7: Horror stories…

Just a few days after Halloween, and with pumpkins adorning the refreshment tables at Open Data Camp 7, campers gathered at the end of day two to swap open data horror stories. Or, as leader Dan Barrett put it, to learn from their experiences and mistakes. Because that can be cathartic — and helpful for others.

Story one

A reflection on working at [a large public institution] and spending six years trying to improve its open data division. “I recognised that there was a division between its work and public understanding of what it did. And I thought open data could help to bridge that.” Things were going fairly well. “And then they went spectacularly badly, and the work stopped.”

What did the teller learn? “That it is important to own the story of your own work, and to think about how you tell it to other people,” particularly in an environment in which others are seeking to benefit from telling a counter-narrative, “discounting the work you do, playing down the benefits of what you do”, and diverting resources to other priorities. “So that is the lesson I am taking into a new role: Tell stories that resonate with everybody about data.”

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ODCamp 7: Getting started on a guide to getting started

Post lunch on the second day of Open Data Camp 7, and Simon Worthington from Register Dynamics set up a practical session to making a start on a guide to getting started with open data. With sticky notes, of course. So, he asked participants, what would they have needed to know when they were getting started? And what resources would they have pointed people towards the answer those questions?

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Extracting Open Data from PDFs in usable formats

A session on rescuing usable data supplied in PDFs, led by Martin.

A client of one of the session participants needed an automated process to check which PDFs had changed data in them – and which didn’t. They had been doing it manually. However, a computational solution isn’t as easy as it looks. For example, software often finds it hard to spot a table. It’s relatively easy to extract data from a table in a PDF, if it looks clearly like a table – borders around “cells”. However, many tables in PDFs are clear to humans – but not to computers. Extracting those sorts of tables is much more tricky.

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Registers: why they matter and how to save them

A Open Data Camp 7 session on registers, led by Andy Bennet of registers.app.

At the end of 2015, there was a project in the Government Digital Service about the structure of data. There was open.gov.uk, where the data was quite unstructured. The consumer had to wrangle it into the form they needed. In the legalisation, there were hundreds of thousands of mentions of registers – datasets that different departments and minsters needed to keep. The idea was to publish these registers of things government knows.

One core principle: these are owned and maintained registers. This makes them about governance – about making sure that there are people in positions of power with responsibility for them. You can’t spread the decision-making around – it has to be a named individual. There’s been some work done by the Open Data Institute in the last year about collaborative ownership models.

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ODCamp 7: Ten years of open data. What have we learned?

Tim Davies has written a book: The State of Open Data (@stateofopendata) with the support of international development and open data organisations and the OD4D.net initiative.

So he wanted to run a retrospective of the first ten years of open data at Open Data Camp 7 in London: and to find out from campers what their experience had been: “the good, the bad, the in between.”

First, the book. “We recognised sometime last year that we were coming up on a decade since President Obama made a splash on open data in the US and the UK launched the Open Data Institute. So we put up some Google documents and looked at seven areas to brainstorm thoughts about what had happened in them.”

More than 200 people pitched in ideas, and commented on events and initiatives from different perspectives. Then, the authors – 40% of whom were women, and many of whom come from the global south – were asked to comment and revise what became 6,000 word chapters.

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Data Art: what are the limits and opportunities in data licensing for artists?

A session on using open data in artistic works of various sources, led by Leela Collins.

Traditionally, we have infographics, where we take data and visualise it so people can understand it. And then there’s conceptual art, which gains some of its meaning from the original data source. Does that create a new work, or does it owe something to the data producer?

Data is becoming a tool, in the same way that brushes are.

And then there’s protest art, where the whole of the data is used to create the art. But if the data is licensed non-commercially, can the artist make money from the work? A full open data licence is free for reuse. However, a non-commercial licence on some data is somewhat ambiguous – is it just restricting resale of the data itself, or does it prevent it being used for anything commercial?

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ODCamp 7: Going green(er) with open procurement data

Day two of Open Data Camp 7 at Geovation in London started with a session on public sector procurement data, and how it could be used to encourage green initiatives. Ian Makgill introduced the session. His company has a site that captures public tender information and makes it “freely available to everyone” and then analyses the data to say “oh look, this is how much work this company has got” or “here’s a trend in a particular kind of spending.”

However, he said, while this was interesting, it wasn’t having a big impact on organisational behaviour. But: “What we realised is that suppliers are very interested in when contracts are coming to an end. That’s understandable, but it’s also a massive leverage point at which the public could encourage procurement that reduces carbon.”

After all, government spends around £12.9 billion a year on things, and those things are responsible for about 17% of carbon output, because they are things like roads, and airports. So there should be an opportunity for experts and the public to get in and argue that setting a contract in a different way will induce change.

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