Open Data – A really simple walk-through for service leads

Open data stickers
Mandatory picture of Open Data sticker fan

Today, I have been working on drafting up a list of datasets that I’d like to open up in Trafford (More on this in a later post). I started to tap out emails to a couple of the service leads who would (hopefully) be allowing me and my team access to the systems and data, and would ultimately be authorising the data for release.

In these emails, I wanted to provide a link to something that they could read about open data – what it is, and what’s in it for them. I couldn’t find anything, though, that was short, simple, and covered the sorts of things that matter locally, rather than £3 trillion global benefits, or whatever. So I decided to write one. It is specific to Trafford, but feel free to swap out your own organisation as appropriate.

You’ve sent me an email prattling on about open data. What is it?

Open Data is data that we publish, and is freely available for anyone to use, completely free of charge, to do whatever they want, including make money from it (I know!). Sometimes, we ask that people say that they got the data from us when they use it.

There are different degrees of openness. All datasets can be assigned a number of stars, according to a system devised by Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the man who invented the World Wide Web). This system starts with one star – publishing data in pdfs (which means the data is available to use, but is very difficult to use) through to five stars – publishing linked open data (data that is machine and human readable, and can be linked to other datasets, even in other organisations).

In Trafford, we are aspiring to publish all of our data as 5 star data. We have a special database which allows us to store the data, and then make it available in a very elegant way.

Well this all sounds very nice, but why should we do this?

Open data benefits several groups of people. Frequently, it is developers who are touted as being the main beneficiaries of open data. They can build apps using the data that they can then sell back to the public at 69p a pop.

This almost feels like a red herring, though. The real benefit of open data, certainly in Trafford, comes from ‘dogfooding’. Dogfooding is the term given to an organisation using its own product, and we do this pretty well here. We have used open data to determine where we should site defibrillators, identified a disparity between male and female life expectancy in Timperley, and attracted £1 million lottery funding to Sale.

By releasing more open data, we in the Innovation and Intelligence Lab can use the data, working with service leads, to pick out opportunities, help to redesign services, or influence demand.

We will also be using these open data sets to support the voluntary sector – helping them to identify areas where their service is most likely to be needed, and support their funding applications with cold hard evidence (and maps)

Also, and this is probably less important, in Trafford, we really like open data.

Soooo… where does the data go?

We have a few places where we put our open data. Primarily – we put it on InfoTrafford, Trafford’s Local Information System. We generally also try and add a bit of value, by mapping the data, or something. We also put a reference to the data on, the central UK catalogue of Open Data sets. We also, recently, have been putting data onto the Greater Manchester quad store, which we have developed through the Greater Manchester Data Synchronisation Programme.

And then what happens to it?

Well, we’ll publicise it through this blog, and also using twitter. We’ll also start to use it in analyses, where appropriate, and if we can add the data to our area profiles, we will.

We’ll also be doing data dives, or hacks, or coding challenges, or something, that’ll bring people together to do stuff with the data.

So has anything come from the data that was released previously in Trafford?

As a matter of fact, yes. Aside from the defibs, premature mortality and lottery funding (above), we do a lot in Trafford. We used open data to support the setting of the Locality Partnership priorities, and the participatory budgeting events. We also drew in funding to support isolated elderly people, and used open data to inform the Welfare Reform group.

Outside of Trafford, some of our data was taken to a coding challenge, where a group of developers came together to compete to develop the best app or visualisation. There have been some spectacular things made of the back of some quite banal datasets – streetlights in particular has generated a lot of interest, with one team creating an app called Light Raider, which ‘gamifies the urban environment’, and who doesn’t want that?!

Won’t people get the hump about their data being publicised?

Well this is very specifically NOT personal data. No data will allow the identification of individual people, though personal data can be aggregated to give an open dataset, say at ward level.

We also cannot release data that is commercially sensitive, such as the amount of grit dropped by a gritter.

I thought you said this would be short and simple?

Yeah – sorry about that.

Sounds good – where do I sign up?

Tweet me for the deets. Or email for the…details.


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