Lea Gorgulu Webb, a data consultant, wanted to talk about water.
Why? Because Ofwat is asking water companies to publish data as open data. So, she asked, what kind of data would be useful? How raw should that data be? How much curation would be useful? What, in short, should Ofwat, as a regulator, be asking water companies to do?
Participants had more useful background.
The ODI has been working with Ofwat on its H2Open strategy. Some companies are on side, and already publishing information on, for example, storm overflows.
However, there are problems.
At the moment, water companies can charge to release data, but it can turn out to be inaccurate. There’s no agreement on the underlying reference data – and without standards, the same thing can be described in different ways. Some information that is being made public is being published on maps, from which data can’t be abstracted or analysed.
So, some of the basics of open data need to be applied.
There need to be rules about how open data is described, and released. There needs to be some way to trace what is happening to the data, and whether it’s use is delivering benefits.
“Value questions are interesting,” Lea said. “Lots of these companies are owned by private equity, and they want to know that they are getting value from doing this.” Value might come from having errors corrected, or issues identified. Or it might be less tangible. “The value might come from appearing open to investors and users.”
The discussion felt water could learn some things from the electricity industry, which is further ahead. And if the issues can be sorted out, it had plenty of ideas for uses to which a new data set could be put.
Establishing basic facts: such as which water or sewerage company is responsible for a particular development or property. Mapping assets. Tracking flooding. Looking at at the water table: to prevent over-abstraction, or inform development plans. Tracking sewage outflows – a ‘hot topic’ at the moment, thanks to campaigning by singer Feargal Sharkey.
“I think the initiatives that are happening in water are some of the best opportunities to identify issues and get solutions applied,” one participant argued. “I just think that as a community we need to make sure that our interests are fed through, so we can play our part in doing something about them.”