Tim Berners-Lee’s work for the UK government is yielding all sorts of interesting public sector data – the challenge it to put it to good use at a hyperlocal level. I am rounding up some local data people to meet with government people leading work in this area.
Public sector data yields the most benefit at the local level. Peopel get animated about issues on their street, but in my experience lose interest as the issue become more abstract and further removed from their daily lives. To get government data working for social good in communities John Denham’s team in CLG need to stimulate a hyperlocal treatment for public sector data and help local authorities publish data better. This can be done inexpensively and relatively quickly if they nurture emerging hyperlocal talent.
In late 2006 I helped kick off the power of information work for the then minister Hilary Armstrong MP. It was great to start an original piece of work ahead of any other government in the world. So it was more satisfying than normal just over two years later to be back at Number 10 to see my former boss Andrew Stott and his team meet with the Prime Minister, Sir Tim Berners Lee and Prof Nigel Shadbolt to announce another big step forward, bringing the Ordnance Survey and Post Code data out into the open.
This data release isn’t abstract though – it is intended to improve social and economic outcomes in Britain. At a national level the UK’s superb data mashing and reuse community will create national services with local relevance like Fix My Street and UK schools map. The marvellous map of public spanding by OKFN shows, even in alpha the shape of the next wave – the Show Us a Better Way competition my team ran in 2008 helped fund this.
There seems to be an unwieldy stack of data from national to local – data held nationally can often be localised through use of geotagging or postcoding – i expect that is where the OKFN work will go in the long term. But data held locally about hyperlocal public services needs to be manually assembled from several hundred different systems. This is data and unstructured information about for instance police safer neighbourhood teams, local health information, social housing, papers presented to council area committees etc.
The people who can best make use of this data in neighbourhoods are local web publishers, people who run community websites and forums. I run a reasonable local site that does its bit for local democratic engagement – but due to my lack of technical skills I need data to be served up to me in a very simple way so that i can just stick it in my side bar or subscribe to it. In general if the data is packaged right for retail consumtpion, more or less anyone can use it.
My work with talk about local suggests that more local publishers have my level of technical ability than may be comfortable say with parsing things. I wouldn’t know what to do with RDFa if it bit me. Recently Richard Goodwin of the London Gazette reached out to me to offer some interesting data in RDFa, but i couldn’t work out how it worked.
We can see areas where people in the tech world are trying to make sense of the unweildy hyperlocal public services data, though. MySociety a couple of years ago organised a large range of email reporting addresses to create the world leading www.fixmystreet.com and the marvellous what do they know the FOI aggregation site. Chris Taggart, who goes by the name @countculture runs Openly Local which makes and then compiles a huge range of feeds from councils. It may be that Chris is the first person in the world to compile a service like this. Philip John of Lichfield Blog has been working on a wordpress plug in to make it easier for local publishers to bring council information from Openly Local into their sidebar. Chris Taggart has also published a Ning plug-in that Harringay Online is using. Simon Gryce and belocal are, I think, also looking at this general area.
At the Downing Street meeting, I was pleased to see several mentions of John Denham the Cabinet Minister for local government. The challenge for John Denham’s Department is to get local authority held data published and then stimulate creativity in truly local applications of national and local data sets. There are some simple and cheap ways – a competition with small prizes for good ideas, run a hack day with say the LGA or Dave Briggs.
First off though I have offered to Nigel Shadbolt to help round up some people who are interested in using local data for a meeting with the government team working on this. If you want to come along, let me know in the comments, with links to your work, if it’s over subscribed I shall use links to discriminate in thinning a list.
If you know of any other work on this stuff please add it in the comments and i shall update the post in due course.
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