Opening public data has gained a real head of steam in the last year. The idea is to make publicly-held and non-personal data freely available for reuse by public bodies, individuals and businesses. Practically, it’s about making data easy to find, easy to license and easy for others to re-use. Public bodies create, collect or use all kinds of information every day. From building applications to job centre vacancies, welfare benefits to MPs’ expenses. I’m not naturally drawn to spreadsheets and data but the information in them affects all our lives, and that interests me. When you get hold of the data, find the stories and communicate these in meaningful ways, all kinds of civic and commercial opportunities open up.
All over Birmingham and nearby, I’ve seen councils, businesses, academics, web developers, journalists and community groups exploring these opportunities. Talis, a Birmingham-based software company, are leaders in semantic web technology. They host linked data for the government’s data.gov.uk site. bevocal.org, which is one aspect of Digital Birmingham’s Timely Information Project, highlights how public data can be turned into useful information for citizens.
Paul Bradshaw coordinates the Hacks/Hackers group in Birmingham, connecting people interested in journalistic (and civic) possibilities of data to make sense of their world. NHS Local (nhslocal.nhs.uk) provides digital services for NHS staff and the public in the West Midlands. They run a data blog looking at using open health data to evidence decisions and solve problems.
Speed Data events in Birmingham connect senior public sector managers with digital talent from across the West Midlands, to turn raw data into something practical focused on citizens, and build applications to help public servants work more efficiently. I went to Mapitude, an event sponsored by Digital Birmingham to develop understanding and practical collaboration between web developers and mappers, including Mappa Mercia (the OpenStreetMap group for the Midlands). What impressed me was how individuals gave their own time because of a shared interest in mapping and open data. Crossing typical professional boundaries, programmers, mappers, local government of officers, researchers and designers worked together to build a demonstration of how open data can be mapped to tell a story about a place.
Connecting data experts with policy makers and local authorities was the focus of an Open data event run by Andrew Mackenzie and the WMRO. I was pleased to see senior policy people and officers from local government together with those already opening up public data, including some of the developers mentioned above. This collaboration across groups is crucial to realising the benefits of open data. What I really hope for is open data principles embedded in public sector culture and used to improve services. At our event, I felt policy makers and senior public sector managers wanted to grasp how open data can improve their organisations’ services, drive efficiency and save them money.
Many councils in the West Midlands are already using open data effectively to improve services, and we saw great examples of work by Lichfield District Council, Warwickshire County Council and Walsall Council. There’s a real sense of momentum around open data here in Birmingham and the West Midlands. Yes, there’s a long way to go and we’re all learning as we go, but with the talent here and the great work going on, we’re well placed to turn the knowledge and experience into real benefits.
This article was originally published in Birmingham: Stories from a digital city for the Hello Digital festival, October 2010. The publication showcases the role of digital media across business, public services, education and communities. It was produced by Open Box on behalf of Digital Birmingham with support and sponsorship from Marketing Birmingham, Birmingham City Council and Business Link West Midlands.