Published on May 1, 2013

Unlocking the Potential of Open Data

By Sarah Borwick

Sarah is a Research Intern at Involve.

Pot holeI recently joined Involve as a Research Intern, working on issues relating to open government, open data, participation and democracy.

Last week, to celebrate Big Data Week 2013, I attended an event hosted by FutureGov on data driven public services.

10 speakers from a variety of public, private and third sector organisations were given just five minutes each to address a packed room on what they believed were the main challenges facing the use of open data. Although it transpired that the challenges are, unsurprisingly, many and varied, I have summarised the key messages below:

Data services need to be citizen-driven.

Whether citizens see the aim of data as being political (increasing transparency and accountability), social, (increasing co-production and collaboration), or economic, (increasing choice for consumers), it was agreed that data should have a user focus, and not be a tool used simply to empower governments. A poignant example was offered by Helen Olson from UKAuthority, whose son suffers from a rare disease. The lack of joined-up health services has meant that getting the right treatment for him has been a stressful experience. She argued that this could be remedied by using data to look at cases holistically; departments need to share information with one another to find effective solutions, faster, and this will greatly help current and future patients.

Data needs to address the problems that matter.

A particularly interesting tension was brought to light over a discussion about potholes (yes, literal potholes): are small-scale, data-driven schemes designed to address minor grievances such as those designed to decrease potholes, obscuring the public sector’s responsibility to address real problems with real solutions? Some argued that the problem lies with a mindset currently held in politics that data should simply be used to make and save money, rather than as a way to enhance the quality of public services and empower citizens.

Data is messy.

Data is often held in multiple places, is complex, cumbersome and expensive to untangle, and this is a large hurdle faced by local government in attempting to make use of it. This is slowly changing with advancements in technology, but is an obvious barrier nonetheless.

We need more talent.

Another quite worrying issue, faced by the UK in particular, is the lack of skilled individuals, or data scientists, who have the capabilities to transform data into something meaningful. Many speakers noted that a re-focus on the importance of a technological education is vital in order to fill this gap.


But it wasn’t all doom and gloom; there was much optimism offered in the form of case studies which we can learn from and build on in the quest for better public services. Mastadon C for example, gave examples of exciting work they’d completed with the NHS, working on saving large sums of money on prescription costs. The other area of intrigue was the work that organisations like AKVO are doing in developing countries. Numerous community development schemes are being rolled out in countries such as Brazil, India and Kenya, aimed at a range of areas, from improving choice and accountability in schools, to mapping cities, to water and sanitation. Perhaps the UK could learn from these innovative examples.

Importantly, it was agreed that in order to better use data, there must be an open dialogue within local government, between organisations, and most importantly, with citizens themselves. Hackathons are a way to do this, and this engagement needs to continue and be built upon. Many argued that a more radical reform of civil society and government mindset is needed. This is happening at the civil society level with the smart phone and new media boom, but a reluctance from government to whole-heartedly embrace technological solutions is stifling this potential development.

It seems then that changes need to be made, and in fact, these could ultimately go some way to resolving tensions and further both agendas: they could have the transformative impact on peoples’ lives and they could deliver economic savings that the public sector so desperately needs.

One of the areas in which we suspect significant changes need to be made is in how government engages with citizens using open data. That’s why, at Involve, we’ll be working on a project to understand more about the relationship the government has with community groups and individuals with regard to open data. It will seek to understand who is using open data, how effectively are they using it, and importantly, to what degree the government are listening to citizens engaging with open data. This project is linked to Involve’s work on open government – an issue high on the government’s agenda, and a crucial element to improving the relationship between the government and its citizens.

We would therefore welcome your experiences of using (or not using) open data, or any examples you may have where open data has been used to good or bad effect in deepening democracy in other countries.

Image by leonbc

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