I was invited to speak on a panel the other day, to talk about open data and what we are going to do with it. Obviously I said yes, because a) I quite like an audience and b) open data is something I care about*. Or rather, seeing open data done right is something I care about. If it’s done right it opens up local government so that we can prove we’re not hiding anything. Nobody believes us when we say it, so we need to show it.
What also happens if open data is done right is that we have less work to do. That sounds like something my many overworked and stressed colleagues can get behind, too. Less work because we don’t have to wrestle data out of nasty database systems that were never designed to give it up. Less work because we don’t need a team of people tracking whether or not we’ve replied to the FOI requests submitted by people sick of being told there’s no data. Less work because given the right data sets, clever motivated people will write apps and tools and analyses that will make everybody’s lives easier.
No downside, right? Apart from the work involved in getting the data opened up, of course, but there you are. There’s always something. And we’re here anyway and we’re getting paid, so we should be doing something.
There’s another side to the open data thing though; it’s tough to get started because there’s very little feedback about what data should be opened up first. There’s a certain amount of inertia to overcome within most large organisations when you’re starting something new, and this is a perfect example. So we try to pick ‘quick wins’ to prove the concept, and that’s where it gets tricky. We want to release data that someone will immediately pick up and do something awesome with, so we can point to it and use it to justify the effort involved and encourage more people to give us data to release. But our optimistic vision doesn’t always come true, not that easily.
Recently on Twitter I saw this: “you have to invest in building the demand side re open data.”. It was phrased in the context of telling people what they wanted, telling them how badly they wanted it, then giving them what they’d been told they wanted. Call me cynical, but I don’t see that working out.
Here’s my plan; I’m investing in building the dialogue – which as everyone knows has two sides, not one. Building dialogue, weirdly enough, works best when the person who needs information shuts up and listens to the person who has the answers. So on the face of it it looks like I’m sitting still and drinking coffee and nodding a lot, but actually I’m very very busy finding out what people want to talk about when we don’t tell them what they want to talk about.
* It just so happens there was free ice cream too, but obviously that didn’t sway my decision at all.