Thanks for the open data promise (but don't forget our freedom of information)


Twitter data visualisation from Psychemedia

Welcome news for those involved in open data campaigning this morning – the government is looking into new ways of releasing information and has appointed wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales to help.

The Telegraph says that Wales is one of a number of “unpaid advisors” who would help the public sector “deliver new ways that we can (harness) the internet and technology”.

This morning’s interview package on Radio 4’s today programme (listen again at about 07.55) explores some of the issues around that and features the work of Openly Local’s Chris Taggert (@countculture) and The Guardian’s Simon Rogers (@smfrogers) alongside some library footage of David Cameron talking about people’s freedom of information.

Two aspects of the conversation particularly strike a chord. Firstly, those of us interested in open data would find arguing against ‘more openness’ like arguing against motherhood and apple pie but Evan Davies makes the valid point about the public’s ease of access and a need for greater understanding of the information that is released.

More is welcome, but more with context would be even better.

The decisions around how the data is presented and, vitally, what data is released by public bodies still happens through processes that often aren’t themselves transparent.

Which brings another important side of this argument – at a time when the government is scrutinising the workings of the Freedom of Information Act, it’s important that open data with its celebrity backer isn’t seen as the magic bullet to stop all those pesky FoI requests.

After all, just through the WhatDoTheyKnow site alone, 108,864 people have already requested the information that they want and need for whatever reason.

And that’s the point – it’s information that they want. People making those requests probably don’t often equate their enquiries with ‘opening data’ – some of the issue here is in the language, some of it in the presentation but no-one should doubt the demand.

Improving on what we’ve already got needs to keep that element of right to request information while at the same time increasing transparency in the process of information release and selection. Any new system needs to ensure what goes forward is a bottom-up, demand-led service.

Having wikipedia’s expertise at the heart of this would seem a good starting point.

* Photo under CC from Psychemedia on Flickr.