Data, data, everywhere and not a drop to link…

OK, OK, that’s not strictly the case, but there’s an element of truth in it and the pun was too good to resist! In fact, as Knowledge Hub’s Liz Copeland goes on to explain, a portion of time at this month’s Digital Leaders North West meeting was spent discussing the fact that while there’s a lot of open data available, much of it is old and inaccurate and therefore even if it is cleverly used and linked together, the outcome is often of very little use.

The session began with some great scene setting from John Bradley of Manchester City Council, followed by an introduction to some of the practicalities of using and linking data across public sector organisations in the North West from Tom Rowlands of Future Everything.

The initial input highlighted a number of potential issues and areas for discussion:

  • Transparency code – public organisations must publish expenditure over £500 in order to expose how public money is spent, however there can also be a lot of cost and bureaucracy associated with doing that, for example redaction of personal data that cannot be published sitting within it.
  • Profile and reputation – an organisation’s own desire to tell people about what they do, how money is spent and how well they’re doing, for example, Manchester’s ‘State of the City’ report.
  • Freedom of Information – there’s a theory that suggests if data were simply published in the first place, people wouldn’t bother asking for it. In practice this is not true – public sector organisations still receive thousands of FOI requests each year spanning from the media, private companies and individuals (who can often be very specific in their requirements). It’s very difficult to predict what kind of data people will want and for what purpose.
  • Data reuse – there’s a keenness to get data out there to be reused. There’s the potential for great commercial advantage for the Manchester area. However quite often there are issues around how the data is reused, for what purpose and to what ends.

    The datasets used are very often out of date, which then leads to problems of inaccuracy. For example, using food hygiene ratings to show which restaurants to eat in and which to avoid sounds like a helpful idea, but in fact, with out of date data the adverse effect on small businesses and the local economy could be huge.

    Likewise there seems to be a lack of debate around the use of particular datasets for a purpose. The use of data on road deaths for example, could be used as a business case to gain more resource for road safety. However when set in a global context, are those extra resources necessary or should they actually be diverted elsewhere? There is a need for a more strategic view on data reuse.
  • The practicalities and challenges – the key to helpful, meaningful data reuse is not simply opening data, it’s about linking data too. However, the challenge of bringing together similar datasets with slightly different terminology and language, different file formats from a range of different organisations and presenting it in a coherent way is a huge barrier to progressing.

    Standardising formats is part of the solution, which is now happening across public service organisations in and around Manchester through the Greater Manchester Data Synchronisation Programme. The programme aims to enable a better free flow of information between public sector organisations and create a public facing element to open up data.

    Other challenges include problems with the data itself – it’s unsuitable, inconsistent, not timely and there’s no innovative or strategic view on how to use it. There are problems with ownership, maintenance, management and budget (i.e. there isn’t one in most cases). There is conflicting advice from different government departments. There’s no scalability because of the lack of standards across regions or the country as a whole. And there’s a clear tension between using data for economic gain (which immediately closes it off) and opening it up for the good of public service and the citizen.

Three key themes emerged from a fascinating discussion:

  1. The tension between commercial gain and public good
    The reasons for opening up data in public service are clear. It can help inform better service delivery (for example location data that enables more efficient pothole reporting) and it enables organisations to get improved insights and understand things they wouldn’t ordinarily know in order to change services to better effect.

    Of course, by opening up data, you also encourage the use of data sets by other organisations, who may then wish to use them to make money. Should open data be used as a force for public good, or for business, or can the two can co-exist?

    The Spend Network was cited here as an interesting example of a small business built on real insights from public data. It offers public sector organisations a comparison with their neighbours (public good), but also enables key business insights too (commercial value).
  2. Quality control vs. innovation
    Much of the criticism levelled at data reuse projects is based on inaccuracy and irrelevance. It follows that for people to have trust in data – and for proper strategic and policy decisions to be made based on it – the data must be of sufficient quality. However, there is a feeling that if you’re waiting for the perfect data to arrive in order to move forward, you’ll be waiting forever. It begs the question – are we trying to use open data to be too precise? Or should it actually indicate clusters and trends?

    The reuse of data needs to happen in a spirit of innovation, otherwise you will never get anything different, interesting or inspiring out of what it is you’re trying to do. Equally, the use of data shouldn’t just be a punt on a good idea. There needs to be a business case for the innovative use of data in each case.
  3. Adding real value
    Extracting meaning from data is critical, there’s no doubt about it. It seems that we are currently wasting resource publishing what we can, rather than considering what really adds value. There’s an element of the tick box mentality about the publishing of data, when we should be using it strategically to drive insights rather than products.

    Organisations may come along and convert some of the open data that’s out there into fancy apps or services, but that’s just tinkering round the edges. To create something of real value that can enhance, or in some cases reinvent services, and generate commercial value, needs large scale data and a sensible business case to get some investment behind it.

If you were interested in this and want to find out more…

All are welcome to join us at Digital Leaders North West – we meet once a month at The Shed at Manchester Metropolitan University. Find out more and get involved by joining our Knowledge Hub Group. Our next meeting will be Thursday 17 September when we’ll be talking about the internet of things, smart home technology and how digital can support elderly people in their homes.

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