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Understanding who will use open data from Public-i

By February 14, 2011One Comment

At Public-i we’re looking into how we can allow our customers to release the raw information our systems generate as open data. This will be about allowing them to, essentially, tick a box to release all the numbers around web-casting and petitions to the public. At the moment we’re in the discussion phase – planning out how this will happen, who it will affect and what the best way of going about the whole process is.

Without wishing to sound promotional (but possibly failing) it’s exciting. We’re putting into practice Catherine’s post from a few weeks ago – where she made it clear that we’ll do what we can to support the movement towards more open government. Given that we’ve got lots of government clients – and this data’s going to be all about democratic processes – we can have a positive impact on that movement in a very straightforward, simple way.

Of course, it’s not as simple as I make it sound – nor as revolutionary. Most of our customers are local authorities and, while some are keen on open data, others are not. We’ve never been in the situation where we choose what happens to the data; it very plainly doesn’t belong to us. That means we can’t just make it open on our own – only ensure we’re not the ones stopping it from being set free.

With that in mind, we’re now starting to grapple with an important question – which many people will be asking us: who is going to use this data and what for? While being specific about use could be silly- who knows what ingenious uses there are? – it’s good to have a fair idea of what people might want to do.

Leaving aside government itself (open data does, in principle, make sharing data between different institutions easier) we reckon there are three ‘markets’. When I started looking into this, I saw that Adrian Short had also recently blogged on the subject – identifying five key groups. My categories are a little different, probably because I’m talking about a more specific load of data.

Data can be used in all sorts of ways, but often it’s best in the hands of folk who know how to turn it into something useful for others. There are lots of examples of how data can drive great applications – as people like Adrian Short are demonstrating. Developers can find ways of making data engaging and useful, as Adrian’s post explains, to different people. Although not specifically about open data, Adrian’s barcode posters app, for example, is a brilliant way of bridging the online with the offline – by taking an RSS feed, producing a poster and generating a barcode for mobile phone users.

There are, as Adrian points out, many different types of user – from ‘super users’ to those who just want to pick through data very occasionally. For the data we’re talking about, I think there may be two different groups…

  • Campaigners – I’d say the first of these groups is made up of the people who are using our systems. Petitioners, for example, may be able to learn a great deal more about how their petition is doing if they can see how many people have shared it, rather than just who has signed up.
  • Armchair Auditors – Similarly, I’d expect a big bit of the interest in the data generated in our systems will be from those who want to know more about how government operates – and how much better it can be at what it does – what Eric Pickles calls an ‘army of armchair auditors’. This public scrutiny role should extend to things like the kinds of democratic services that we help to provide and the value that our systems deliver. The data that is generated from our tools – we hope – will be of use to people like Chris Taggart, who runs the excellent OpenlyLocal website.

And to sum up…
It strikes me that the most important point about all this is that data doesn’t belong to one of these groups more than another. And, indeed, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in data being about clever tools when it’s really (supposed to be) raw information. Similarly, it could be that by thinking too much about audience we forget about a more important principle: that public data should be available for all. For us, in a company that sees itself as being involved in making decision-making easy, it comes down to ensuring we keep in mind the goal of a better-informed public that is able to make better decisions.

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