Principles for, and Practicalities of, Open Public Data

Following the first meeting of the Public Sector Transparency Board last week, which is tasked with “driv[ing] forward the Government’s transparency agenda, making it a core part of all government business, a set of 11 draft public data principles have been posted for comment on the wiki: Draft Public Data Principles [wiki version]

Following the finest Linked Data principles, each draft principle has its own unique URI… err, only it doesn’t… ;-) [here’s how they might look on WriteToReply – WTR: Draft Public Data Principles – with unique URLs for each principle;-)]

The principles broadly state that users have a right to open public data, and that data should be published in ways that make it useable and useful (so machine readable, not restrictively licensed, easily discoverable and standards based, timely and fine grained). In addition, data unerlying government websites will be made available (as for example in the case of the DirectGov Syndication API?) Other public bodies will be encouraged to publish inventories of their data holdings and make it available for reuse.

A separate blog post on the blog describes some of the practical difficulties that local government offices might face when opening up their data: Publishing Local Open Data – Important Lessons from the Open Election Data project (Again, unique URLs for individual lessons are unavailable, but here’s an example of how we might automatically generate identifiers for them;-) WTR: Lessons Learned from the Open Election Data Project). The lessons learned include a lack of corporate awareness about open data issues (presumably there is a little more awareness since the PM’s letter to councils on opening up data), a lack of web skills and web publishing resources, not to mention a very limited understanding of, and tools available for the handling of, Linked Data.

As to what data might be opened up, particularly by local councils, Paul Clarke identifies several different classes of data (There’s data, and there’s data):

historical data;
planning data;
infrastructural data;
operational data.

My own take on it can be seen here:

(An updated version of this presentation, with full annotations, should be available in a week or two!)

Looking around elsewhere, Local government data: lessons from London suggests:

– “don’t start hiring big, expensive consultancy firms for advice”;
– “do draw on the expertise and learning already there”;
– “do remember that putting the data out there of itself is not enough – it must be predicated on a model of engagement.”

Picking up on that last point, the debate regarding the “usefulness” of data has a long way to run, I think? Whilst I would advocate lowering barriers to entry (which means making data discoverable, queryable (so particular views over it can be expressed), and available in “everyday” CSV and Excel spreadsheet formats) there is also the danger that if we put the requirement for data to be demonstrably useful to publishers, this will deter them from opening up data they don’t perceive to be useful. In this respect, the Draft Public Data Principle that states:

Public data policy and practice will be clearly driven by the public and businesses who want and use the data, including what data is released when and in what form – and in addition to the legal Right To Data itself this overriding principle should apply to the implementation of all the other principles.

should help ensure that an element of “pull” can be used to ensure the release of data that others know how to make useful, or need to make something else useful…

On the “usefulness” front, it’s also worth checking out Ingrid Koehler’s post Sometimes you have to make useful yourself, which mentions existence value and accountability value as well as value arising from “meta” operations such as the ability to compare data across organisation operating in similar areas (such as local councils, or wards within a particular council).

For my own part, I’ve recently started looking at ways in which can can generate transparency in reporting and policy development by linking summary statistics back to the original data (e.g. So Where Do the Numbers in Government Reports Come From?), a point also raised in Open data requires responsible reporting… and the comments that follow it). Providing infrastructure that supports this linkage between summary reported data and the formulas used to generate those data summaries is something that I think would help make open data more useful for transparency purposes, although it sits at a higher level than the principles governing the straightforward publication and release of open public data.

See also:
Ben Goldacre on when the data just isn’t enough without the working…
Publishing itemised local authority expenditure – advice for comment

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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