Open Data Brighton and Hove

I went along to the first meet-up for Open Data Brighton and Hove last night. It was a stimulating evening with a room full of smart and knowledgable people, and a great opportunity for me to learn, as I am neither a geek, nor an open data expert.

Right now, there’s no website, so if you want to find out more, come along to a meet-up (the Quadrant has pretty good beer, so the worst that can happen is that you’ll have a nice drink) or sift through the Twitter hashtag: #ODBH.

I wrote down lots of what other people said, and I’m sharing the themes that I found interesting here. To caveat: the good stuff was mostly said by others; I’ve just filtered and remixed it. In some cases, people who said these things may have been trying to make different points, in which case, sorry if I’ve used your input to say something else. And I’m not trying to be comprehensive; there are lots of big important challenges (like negotiating licensing rights) in which I’m personally not that interested, but I’m sure others will take on.
Stony Faced

Stony Faced by floato, on Flickr

Community engagement

Communities need to engage with decision makers in order to solve local problems. In the current economic climate, when councils are faced with tough decisions about where to make cuts, involving local people is even more important.

It is possible (though there’s a lot of work to be done to demonstrate this) that opening up local data, and building useful tools on top of it, could engage citizens more. And vice versa — more engaged citizens are more likely to make use of open data.

I’m particularly interested in how we could take an engagement model like Transition Towns and power this with more open data. Would it let us extend the Transition model into more aspects of our lives (like healthcare) or allow us to build more services to support those strands where Transition is already strong (e.g. local food, or resilient local infrastructure)?

Who makes the first move?

Open data enthusiasts want data owners to tell them what data sets they have, so they can figure out what sort of tools could be made. Owners want developers to tell them what data they want so they can decide what to release. Each side is being asked to make a large investment, so it’s easy to understand their reluctance to act first.

But we’re clearly in a bootstrapping scenario, and it looks like we’ll have to start with some currently available data, regardless of how ill-formatted, build a few quick and dirty apps and see where we go from there.

My instinct is that the onus is on the developers to demonstrate that they can make something useful, even if it’s not as pure as they’d like in its first incarnation.

Context

There’s a deep issue around the amount and kind of context needed to give data meaning. Who should be responsible for providing this context? At what point does meaning become interpretation? If context adds another layer on top of ‘raw’ data (if such a thing exists) to what extent does that obstruct developers who want access to the most basic data to maximise opportunities for re-use?

You could sped a lifetime talking about this stuff, but it’s not a novel problem. Brighton and Hove are not the first place to face it. Maybe we should ask Lichfield how they’re tackling this…

Who are the data owners?

When you frame the conversation in terms of a place and you talk of data owners or publishers, you inevitably think of the council and other civic authorities or publicly funded bodies: the police, libraries, council contractors, etc.

While this is one key source, I don’t think we’re really talking about open data until we broaden the supply side out to include, individuals (whether they be citizens, consumers, neighbours, families, victims, workers, service users, whoever) local commercial interests, charities, etc.

It is the nature of data collection that the store is often held centrally, and so we look to central bodies to release it, but increasingly, individuals are signing up to data collection services where open access to the resulting dataset is part of the deal. Maybe the next Nectar or Oyster Card scheme will be one in which we agree to share data about our purchases and journeys only if we can access the aggregate set too.

Who are the data users and how do we involve them?

I’m inclined to think that the geeks and data owners are powerful and literate enough to figure out the opportunities open to them, and their roles in an open-data-powered Brighton and Hove. But we need to be careful we’re not creating a solution in search of a problem.

What’s the value proposition for citizens, consumers and so on? What about voluntary groups? Or small local businesses, or corporates with a footprint in Brighton and Hove?

And how do we transition open data from being a geek experiment to a mainstream service? Clearly, some compelling, simple applications will be key, as is clever packaging, and a willingness to put aside technical talk. Some PR wouldn’t hurt either. If Twitter went mainstream through the hard work of Ashton Kutcher, Stephen Fry et al, what will be our flash points? The Brighton Festival? The marathon?

It’s always difficult selling people something they don’t know they need. (As Greg said by way of analogy, who needs the internet when you’ve got Ceefax?)

There are many more interesting questions, and much ground already covered by others who we can learn from. I’m looking forward to seeing how this develops. For my part, I’m going to look for opportunities for the people I work with to use or release data. What datasets can I bring to the table? What problems could we solve? How can we talk about it in ways that are meaningful to everyone who wasn’t upstairs in the Quadrant on Tuesday evening?