The why question: what is the purpose of open data?

Leader Nick Ananin, a project officer at Aberdeen City Council, explained that he had pitched the session because he was “confused”.

He explained that he was a system designer, and the first question a system designer always asks is: “What is the purpose of the system?” From that, he argued, it is possible to ask questions like: what products and functions will be needed to deliver that; and what controls will be put on them.

“So, in terms of open data, I started to think “how can we make sure that local authorities, when we publish data and add metadata, publishing the right data and adding the right meta data?” Get this wrong, he warned, and it would be impossible for potential users to find information, or for publishers to make sure it met their needs.

Is systems thinking the right thinking?

Nick was immediately challenged by a participant who argued that systems thinking is the wrong thinking to apply to open data. “My view is that you just have to publish, see it as raw material, like iron, and accept that somebody else is going to do something with it, like smelt it. You don’t have to worry about that is, unless you want to direct that, and push the value back down the chain.”

Another participant said he agreed. But this created a problem for potential publishers. “The first question I am always asked is: what is in this for us? What is the value for us, when it is going to cost us money to do it?”

One of the camp organisers argued that one of the reasons that organisations worry about publication is that they know their data is not very good; so cleaning it will take effort. The best thing to do, she suggested, was to get the data in a good state to start with. Publishing as open data just encourages that. “Open data is a bit like your mum coming around to clean up your room. Once it’s done, it’s a lot easier to keep it clean.”

Another participant agreed, and said a major reason that his organisation, a council, had decided to move towards open data was to find out what it held, what state it was in, and why other parts of the organisation were not already using it.

Nick suggested that in system terms, this might make the purpose of open data to shift the culture of an organisation. But, he suggested, if that was the case, it would affect the database it was published to, and the meta data attached to it.

However, participants argued that this didn’t much matter; as long as potential users had good search interfaces. “We just whacked our data out,” one said. “We didn’t worry about what it looked like or anything else.

“We just did it and let people find it. If we hadn’t done that, we would not have got the benefits we got.”

The key bits of thinking, they argued, was that “you can’t work for it to be perfect to do it, you just have to stick it out there”; and there is a difference between data and search. Data doesn’t have to be filed into databases; people will find it through a search engine if they really want it.

Start by starting

Local authorities have their own open data stores. Nick said he wanted to know who was going to use his council’s store and how to make sure it had the right themes and key words attached so they could find it.

Again, though, participants said it would be better to “just publish” the data and not to worry about themes and keywords; precisely because it is all but impossible to know who will want to use that data or what they will do with it.

Certainly, they agreed, public organisations can try and ask local people or other stakeholders what kind of information they would like: but the response is likely to be “what have you got?” Publishing answers that question.

Nick said he agreed that “feedback was an essential part of any system” and he would like his community to own the data and design the system for collecting and publishing it. This would make the council a consumer, rather than publisher of data. Which would be quite a change in perspective.

But participants challenged him again, arguing that a lot of the data held by a council would have come from its community; but the council should hold and publish it because it is the council. It has the authority and the resources. “As government, we have a duty to be a single source of the truth. People might argue with us, but at least there is somebody to argue with.”

On the other hand, it should definitely publish. Summing up the main theme of the session, one participant said: “My advice would be to get started. Just get things out there, because it shows good will. The portals and schemas and tags will develop over time, and will be better for feedback.”

Another view of value

Returning to the value question, participants suggested that councils and other organisations can ask (nicely, in a non-compulsory way) for some information about what people are planning to do with that data; so they can address the value issue. Some open data enthusiasts don’t agree with this, but session participants felt it was ok to ask for an email address that a publisher could use to ask what was going to happen to a value set.

Others argued that it would be better to publish with an API, because that will generate meta-data about, say, whether pictures or information about events is picked up; and that, in itself, should lead to useful conversations.

Still confused? Nick said he was: but relieved that so many thorny issues had been raised.

[Session Notes]

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