Tag Archives: open data

Three big challenges for Open Government

A couple of colleagues from Delib and I had the pleasure of attending a workshop this week run by the Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network in Bristol, led by Tim Hughes from Involve.

The workshop brought together a mix of people working in digital democracy in Bristol and the area with the goal of discussing what the OGP has achieved so far and what the priorities should be in the future – then working up some new ideas of our own for how to make the vision a reality.


To give some background, the Open Government Partnership was launched in 2011, bringing together governments and civil society around the world to promote transparency, build civic participation and tackle corruption. Each country that signs up produces an action plan, which contains a series of commitments to opening up government. The UK is now on its second action plan – which includes commitments to make more data open data, to practise ‘open policy making’, and to increase transparency among government contracts, amongst others.

The OGP Civil Society Network plays the role of coordinating civil society input to what government is doing, ensuring that the process of opening government itself does not become a closed one! They are also collecting the public’s contributions to a crowdsourced Open Government Manifesto – using (what else) our very own Dialogue App.

With a desire to make sure they avoid being too London-centric, they are running a series of workshops around the country this spring to engage with local civil society – and it was the inaugural session that brought them to Bristol.


Personally, I got a lot out of the workshop. In particular, listening to a group of people expressing their hopes and concerns for Open Government highlighted what for me are three of the biggest challenges in this area:

1. Turning transparency into participation

Working in government, the open government agenda tends to generally be very closely associated with open data and transparency. This is one of the areas where the UK has performed very strongly on a global scale – coming in at first place for 2014 in Open Knowledge’s Open Data Index. Sites like data.gov.uk are really impressive pieces of work, and the enterprising citizen now has an unprecedented range of government information available to them at the end of a google search.

However, I can’t help feeling that this strand of work only takes us so far. Whilst all of this data is useful, much of it is unintelligible to the ordinary citizen without being summarised or analysed by an expert. Such a focus on opening up datasets risks neglecting one of the other main strands of the OGP’s work – increasing participation. After all, what better incentive do citizens have to engage with the data that is available to them than if they are asked to make real decisions based on that data? There is also the concern that the section of the population that engages with open data tends to be predominantly well-educated, well-employed, and already in the orbit of government and policy.

Projects like the open policymaking pilots show a lot of promise – in the future I’d love to see government finding more ways to let citizens make, or at least contribute to, the decisions that the data can help inform.

2. Making the data useful to everyone

Following on from the point above, there are a lot of challenges relating how data is presented. We could perhaps imagine a matrix that plots clarity against obscurity on one axis, and useful accuracy against confusion/inaccuracy on the other. Typically, a lot of information released by government is either clear but confusing/inaccurate or accurate but obscure/unintelligible.

For the former I am thinking of press releases, ministerial speeches and infographics that use easy to understand language and visuals, but strip out the important detail to an extent that without context they are very little use in appraising the policy concerned.

For the latter, I mean the very lengthy delivery plans, parliamentary bills, and spreadsheets of data that are all publicly available, and comprehensive in their detail, but whose size and complexity mean that they are only really of use to the few people with the time and inclination to read them.

It would be great to see more data that is both clear and comprehensive, giving the facts in a nuanced way that is also easy to understand. There already some organisations that do good work producing this kind of information – fullfact.org is a favourite of mine, and the BBC and Guardian Data Blog do a good job too.

In the future, I think it’s important for government to be filling this space more – working hard to make sure that everything published presents all the facts, rather than the ministerial office’s ‘lines’, and seeks always to inform, rather than to hide or deflect.

3. Turning Open Government into something big

One of the real difficulties when discussing Open Government is balancing expectations against reality in terms of the scale of what can be achieved. The concept promises a lot,  especially in the current era, with its distrust of politicians and parties. There’s also the sense that new technology should have the potential to redesign the way we participate in public life in the same way it has completely changed how we shop and socialise.

In this context, some of the projects that are being carried out – many of which are quite specific and policy-wonkish – might appear to be failing to address the issues at the required scale. What the government has done to improve transparency in aid spending, or what we do at Delib to help councils consult on budgets, is (we believe) good and important work, but it all often falls beneath the public radar despite our best efforts. At the workshop, there was also a sense that even for those us working in the sector, the goals and actions of the UK’s Open Government programme hadn’t been high-profile enough.

For open government to really capture the imagination of the wider public, we need to embrace big ideas, and these ideas need representation at the top of our political system. The OGP has called on political parties to commit to open government going into the general election – let’s hope they do!

Thanks again to Tim and Jo (with support from Development Initiatives and VOSCUR) for facilitating a fun and thought-provoking session – see you again soon!


Delib holds local democracy event in partnership with the Democratic Society

This morning the Delib team, in partnership with the Democratic Society had the pleasure of welcoming a number of local individuals to Delib HQ for a unique opportunity to discuss democracy in Bristol, share past projects and explore the potential for future partnership working.

Delib event

While the group were able to ask questions and link to their experience, key attendees shared overviews of their background, favourite projects and goals for the future landscape of democracy in Bristol.

The group then discussed some of the key trends and challenges seen in the city over the last 18 months or so, with the view of identifying where networks could be bridged and new projects devised. Some key trends emerged from our discussions today;

Increasingly innovative engagement projects have been happening for years and successes should be shared

Sammy Payne from Knowle West Media Centre told us about the recent ‘Cardboard Living Room’ art exhibition, which explored innovative ways of collecting and representing data. The exhibit saw 100s of residents having fun engaging with local issues by interacting with 3D cardboard furniture connected to computers which logged their responses to survey questions. Paul Hassan from Ujima radio spoke about a recent project challenging local youth volunteers from Ujima to work in partnership with Bristol University and local politicians to curate a radio program. The project required volunteers to brush up on their knowledge of local politics and follow the mayoral election train whilst engaging their preconceptions and views around voting.

Delib event 3
Neighbor.ly discuss what they are about

Citizens are no longer just consumers, they are also producers

With the rise of crowdfunding and pledge sites, it is perhaps more possible than ever to take an existing partnership or community group and realistically garner funding to get that project off the ground without any Government involvement. In Bristol for example, partly thanks to the site Spacehive, Bristol will be showcasing their first ‘park and slide‘ through the use of a giant waterslide through the center of town.

Cities like Bristol have the opportunity to strive ahead in their own right

As European Green Capital of the year 2015, Bristol is at the forefront of European activity. Bristol City Council who were also in attendance, recently worked in partnership with Bristol’s mayor George Ferguson to run the citys’ first ideas lab through their Dialogue App. If you would like to find out more, we’ve just published this awesome guide on how to run an effective Ideas Lab.

There is an opportunity to bridge networks, the challenge just remains how

There are still some key challenges to address, namely how each of these projects can be effectively linked up via the bridging of networks. It is also worth considering how such a varied skills base can be more effectively utilised collectively perhaps via the use of a skills bank for example. The opportunities available in the next few years have only just begun, needless to say these are exciting times ahead.

Many thanks to the Democratic Society for coming all the way from their native Brighton to attend and present at the event and for Ben, Lorna and Jayne for organising.

A few take home pointers from GovCamp 2013

GovCamp is an annual gathering of people who work within digital areas of government. GovCamp 2013 was just one day this year (as opposed to the usual two), but this didn’t hamper the buzzing atmosphere and high enthusiasm of the attendees. In a slightly different style to my review of GovCamp 2012 I’m taking an outcomes stance, identifying five key trends since 2012 and five challenges for the next year. These are by no means exhaustive but will hopefully capture some of the GovCamp goodness.

UK GovCamp 2013

Five examples of some continuing trends from last year

1) The continued move towards self service models
Self service (people using digital methods to find government and council information) isn’t a new idea, but the transition towards it and the conversations prompted by it present some interesting possibilities. By ensuring that end users can easily access the information needed is a key focus of the GOV.UK site. Age UK was also widely cited at GovCamp as a nice example of an organisation presenting users with varied and useful content.

2) Recognising the importance of digital inclusion and acting on it
Linked to point 1 is recognising the importance of ‘assisted digital’ (as mentioned in The Government Digital Strategy) which is becoming increasingly pertinent within the Digital by Default agenda. Charities and government organisations are working to improve digital literacy across the UK (as covered in our recent blog post on this topic) and this will continue to be an important consideration. Related to this will be ensuring that innovation takes place both within and outside of the digital realm in order for government to have the widest reach.

3) Utilising data available and opening this up for public use
The continued open data movement and use of data at the local level has opened the door to some exciting citizen-centric digital initiatives. Ranging from reporting fly-tipping online to gaining real-time police data, the possibilities seem endless. Some councils, like the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, have even launched apps to help people report community health and safety issues.

4) Working with young and up and coming digital talent
Getting digital on the agenda and on the minds of young people is increasingly important. At Delib, we’ve in past hosted young hackers for the day who managed to build a real-time bus app in a day. Organisations like Apps for Good are working to help young people see a future in digital careers. Young talent can bring a breath of fresh air to government digital initiatives, and it will be increasingly important to include them.

5) Continuing to recognise the importance of conversations and not broadcasts
It’s become clear that social media is about conversations with individuals and community groups and not broadcasting to the masses. Social media, used well can be a powerful tool for engagement as well as educating people about how government works.

Five continued challenges for 2013-14

1) The role of digital teams to enable and lead other departments
We need to escape the ‘I’m not technical, go ask X’ mentality and instead create strong digital teams that can assist and influence staff and other teams across government organisations.

2) Being able to show real value in digital under the Digital by Default agenda
Linked to the role of strong digital teams is the opportunity to evaluate digital as a tool for adding value. Measuring the ROI of digital initiatives, online engagement and social media usage is of critical importance. A fellow GovCamper said it best, that it’s about ‘being able to turn tweets into pounds’.

3) Ensuring digital has a social side and is customer focused
The key question we must ask when moving services online is ‘where is the customer?’ or as one attendee put it, we must ‘socialise the operation rather than operationalise the social’. People mustn’t go from a friendly voice on the phone to a cold and impersonal website. One GovCamper spoke about how user-centric the GOV.UK site is, and how refreshing this is. Let’s hope this drive continues.

4) Recognising and utilising existing communication channels
Whilst digital is exciting and by nature produces a wealth of new ways of working, we must remember that existing communication channels do exist, and still work. The old way is not always a bad way, and unnecessarily reinventing the wheel can be costly, both in time and money. This will be increasingly important with regards to my previous point about working with young talent who may not understand that existing practice is based on years of sound experience.

5) The opportunity for a change of thinking around deliverance
Deliverance around digital projects has traditionally focused on ‘what will I get?’ and ‘when will I get it?’. In a discussion around Agile development methods, the question around being able to measure deliverance against user testing was posed. One attendee pointed out that ‘currently you either deliver on time or you deliver all of the functionality – you can’t do both’. Government digital teams must improve on this in order to gain the best of all worlds.

Delib GovCampers (from L to R): Ben Fowkes, Rowena Farr and Karl Orsborn

GovCamp 2013 was awesome – just as I expected it to be! I’m already looking forward to next year, and being able to look back on how far we’ve come from now.


Eight business models for government open data

Alex Howard has written an excellent article over at the O’Reilly Radar listing eight business models for government open data, a handy list for those in government agencies attempting to justify to senior management or ministers why releasing government data is important and valuable.

The models listed in Alex’s article, Open data economy: eight business models for open data and insight from Deloitte UK, were identified by Michele Osella, a researcher and business analyst in the Business Model & Policy Innovation Unit at the Istituto Superiore Mario Boella in Italy.

(Note that these are classified in Europe as Public Sector Information (PSI) reuse cases.)

I’ve included the list of eight business models below.

From the article:

  1. Premium Product / Service: HospitalRegisters.com
  2. Freemium Product / Service: None of the 13 enterprises interviewed by us falls into this case, but a slew of instances may be provided: a classic example in this vein is represented by mobile apps related to public transportation in urban areas.
  3. Open Source: OpenCorporates and OpenPolis
  4. Infrastructural Razor Blades: Public Data Sets on Amazon Web Service
  5. Demand-Orientated Platform: DataMarket and Infochimps
  6. Supply-Oriented Platform: Socrata and Microsoft Open Government Data Initiative
  7. Free, as Branded Advertising: IBM City Forward, IBM Many Eyes or Google Public Data Explorer
  8. White-Label Development: This business model has not consolidated yet, but some embryonic attempts seem to be particularly promising.

Osella’s presentation on the topic is worth a watch for reference – it provides more detail and case studies on each of these.

Gov Camp 2012 – 15 take home pointers

GovCamp 2012 was awesome. With two days of packed and uber interesting un-conference style talks, coupled with an opportunity to talk to and debate with a whole host of varied people, the event was truly worth working on a Saturday for ;).

In a true round-up style I thought I would go for a nice take-home-pointers blog post.

5 things we learnt from meeting people:

  1. Best practice needs to be shared more. We need to build a greater network of conversation and trust.
  2. Consultation needs to be fluid. Statutory rules on consultation may be too rigid?
  3. Digital maturity is varied within organisations. Recognising this both internally and externally is key.
  4. We need to find and target key nodes within a network. Once we have recognised this we can start to connect people. Connecting people leads to better governance.
  5. Is digital by default over-rated? One camper mentioned heralding The WI as a key player. Grounding consultation in a digital age is still important.

5 things we learnt from the awesome un-conference sessions:

  1. ‘Radical’ websites should become the norm and designed from the bottom up. We need to start looking at websites in terms of what people actually want. We like Utah and Calgary who both use clean and user friendly search portals as their home page sites.
  2. Agile working methods are awesome. We should move away from ‘black-boxing development’. Agile methods should be heralded as the norm.
  3. Don’t forget the end user. We need to advocate a culture of starting with the end user when designing websites and consultation questions.
  4. Manage expectations within consultations. People need to have context and a reasonable set of boundaries.
  5. Sites need to be streamlined and simplified. As one camper mentioned “portals can end up being a hungry mouth which needs feeding information”.

5 things we would like to see next time:

  1. More real life examples on how to apply things in practice. Examples help people go away from Govcamp and start putting their thoughts into practice.
  2. Further examination of bottom up thinking – where does the user journey start and how can we get back to this point?
  3. More focus on futurology – what will our digital environment look like in 5-10 years? What counts as digital literacy and how can we aid this?
  4. How can we connect the feedback loops? How does the nature of decisions change as a result of consultation.
  5. How can we promote buy-in and the awesomeness of digital. Practical tips for spreading the word need to be advocated.

The two day event certainly prompted some take home thoughts – if I am honest this blog post started off as a small essay; I have trimmed it for snappy readers. Thanks to Dave Briggs and Steph Gray for making such event possible and happen 🙂

“A better sense of place” – using geo-tools in consultations for searching and sharing (developer playtime)

I’ve recently spent some time playing with the idea of associating Citizen Space consultations with a geographic location.

We already do this to some extent. Consultations can be associated with one or more local wards or areas, so that visitors to Citizen Space can enter their postcode and see a list of consultations related to the area they live in. This is great for helping people find out what’s going on near them, but I’ve been itching to take this geographic information further. In particular:

1) It would be nice to show this information visually, for example on a map. This is particularly useful if a policy relates to a specific object (eg a building, road junction or monument), or an area that doesn’t correspond to pre-defined ward boundaries (eg a bus route, catchment area or park)

2) We love Open Data. If we’re storing data about a consultation, it’s always nice to make it available in a standard format so that other websites and applications can make use of it. We already do this using RDFa for many of our consultation details (see Tom’s blog post for a good run-down of RDFa and the Semantic Web), but currently we’re not sharing any geographic information with the rest of the world.

So how could this work? A sneak peak of Citizen Space pre-release features:

I’ve added some extra fields so that you can enter longitude and latitude coordinates when setting up a consultation. Alternatively, if you want to specify a shape (such as the footprint of a building), a line (such as a bus route), or an outline (such as the boundaries of a catchment area), you can upload a KML file to your consultation. If you have a GIS team or supplier, they should be able to provide this data in the right format.

Screenshot showing fields for adding longitude, latitude and uploading a KML file

When visitors view the consultation record, they’ll see an interactive map marked with the information you specified:

Map showing a single point

Map showing a single point

Map showing an outline

Map showing the outline of an area

While it’s instructive to show a map of the consultation area to Citizen Space visitors, this location data becomes even more interesting if we let third-party users and developers get their hands on it. In my prototype code, I’ve included three ways of sharing the data:

Method 1: KML
If you look at those screenshots you’ll see that there’s a link to a KML feed underneath the map. If you uploaded your own KML file, it will link straight to that file. If you entered coordinates, it will generate a new KML file just containing the point you specified.

KML is a very simple way to share mapping data with other online applications. It can be done using sites such Google Maps and Microsoft Virtual Earth without any programming knowledge. Lets say you’re consulting about a proposed cycle path, and have uploaded a KML file plotting the complete route of the path. A local parents’ group might use the KML data to overlay your route over their existing map of schools, parks and youth centres, to show how child safety could be improved by the construction of the path.

Method 2: GeoRSS
Citizen Space currently provides RSS feeds that let users subscribe to all the latest consultations, or consultations that meet certain search criteria. These feeds are also used by third-party sites to embed up-to-date consultation information, or to aggregate consultations from multiple sources into a single list.

If we have geographic coordinates associated with a consultation, it’s very easy to publish this information as part of the RSS feed, using the emerging GeoRSS standard. Apps that understand and are interested in the location data can use it in much the same way as the KML data above. Apps and users who are not interested in location data won’t see any difference to their feeds.

Method 3: RDFa
We’ve already mentioned how useful RDFa is for sharing consultation information between different websites and applications. Well, it turns out the RDFa specification includes the ability to link your document to a place, using the “based_near” tag. If you’ve entered latitude and longitude information when setting up your consultation, this extra bit of RDFa will be published along with the rest of the consultation record. Sadly I haven’t found many examples of applications that currently use the based_near feature of RDFa, but here are a couple of ideas I’ve been thinking about:

  • A visual version of the Citizen Space aggregator, that can display consultations from many different sources on the same map.
  • A mobile app that alerts you when you’re near an object or place that’s being consulted on.

This new code isn’t in Citizen Space at the time of publishing this post, but will likely be included in a future release.

If anyone else has ideas for making use of location-based consultation data, please drop me a line. The more good ideas we get, the more likely it is that this feature will make it into a future Citizen Space release.

I’d also be keen to hear of formats we could use to share the data other than KML, GeoRSS or RDFa. Has anyone used GeoJSON for example?

Open Data, Government, and the importance of acting now…

I’m currently at the fantastic Picnic festival in Amsterdam, where many things are being discussed under this years theme Urban Futures.

One of the highlight of yesterday was a round table discussion on Open Government Data. The speakers included Lawrence Lessig, one of the founders of the Creative Commons model and Rufus Pollock, of the Open Knowledge Foundation, who made interesting points expressing each of their views on how and why we need to take open data seriously.

The top line opinions were that opening up data led to a net increase in innovation, efficiency and GDP. Its hard to find concrete research to reference on this point, but the theory is sound, and examples like the opening up of Nasa’s imagery data facilitating things like Google Earth (and ongoing research from releasing more data) mean we’re starting to see empirical evidence.

But then the conversation turned to the importance of time in this process.

Firstly the fact that the current, strong arguments in favour of opening up data won’t work forever. The idea that innovation, efficiency and GDP can be increased by opening up data are practical arguments that will lose their potency. So to really achieve the benefits open data can offer, we need to make this a political issue, that parties present policy approaches on.

Secondly, a large number of the decisions around opening up data are being made imminently, and so we will need to increase awareness of this issue and act fast if we are to prevent some data being either locked up or sold (particularly given the current economic climate). In this respect UK, is making advances with data.gov.uk and the release of linked data sets.

At Delib we recently finished our first Open Data project I Heart My City and will be hoping to do more work in this area in the future.

Here’s a picture of Lawrence Lessig at the round table, holding an invisible rodent.

Lawrence Lessig holding an invisible rodent