Amy Guy

Raw Blog

Friday, March 15, 2013

Open Data Day: Joined Up Edinburgh #joinuped

The 23rd of February was International Open Data Day.  Since this fell at the end of the ILWhack week, it seemed like a good opportunity to take advantage of the momentum and engage the stirring Edinburgh Open Data scene.

Many ODD were organised around the world; most of them were hacks.  In Edinburgh we went for a different approach, thanks largely to input from local community activists like FredaLeahAndy and Ally.  Some might call it 'social hacking'.  Our aim was to gather together people with little knowledge of Open Data, people with data that may or may not be open, and developers and technical types.

With Open Data stuff exploding worldwide, and developers going nuts creating cool apps and services that make use of data being released, it's important, you see, for {local, small-scale, voluntary, grassroots} groups and individuals to get involved early on.  Such parties are arguably likely to benefit the most from empowerment by data, and if they're not part of the discussion early on we might well see a lot of services developed that meet needs imagined by a not-quite-connected but well-meaning tecchie.

So on that note, we want to spread the word about Open Data to those who might normally be left behind.  When these groups know what the possibilities are (we can show them successful projects, locally (eg. ILWhack) and worldwide), what is available, and what could and should be available, we empower them to take action that will benefit them.  More specifically, people can find out that the English government has released data about such-and-such-of-interest, and politely demand that the Scottish Parliament or local councils do similarly.  They can interface early on with developers who are keen to start making, and make sure their real problems get solved (or at least prioritised over potential imaginary ones).  They can get involved with things like ILWhack, and have a better idea of what it's all about.

Between 10am and 2pm, we gathered around 35 people in the Informatics Forum and, fuelled by tea, coffee and biscuits, began the discussion.

We started with an hour of ten minute talks, about a variety of topics:

Sally Kerr told us about Open Data at the City of Edinburgh Council; the progress they've made so far and where they hope to go in the future; NESTA's local government Make It Local programme helped Edinburgh Council to move forward with Open Data.  She gave a nod to the ILWhack projects that made use of Council data in the week prior.

Alex Stobart of MyDex talked about big, open data, and the challenges this presents to citizens and politicians.

Iain Henderson explained the Standard Label; an easy to read specification for data holders to present to their users how the user data will be used.  Like nutritional advice, but for data.. Other ODD events were centred around hacking with it we spoke!

Bob Kerr talked about OpenStreetMap and GeoRSS.  I love the obsessive hyperlocal detail in some places, like where the animals live in Edinburgh Zoo.  On a serious note, OSM has really empowered local governments and NGOs in developing countries.

Andy Hyde discussed asset mapping for voluntary groups; how ALISS collate dispersed health and wellbeing information into a central, open repository, ripe for manual and programmatic access.

From Lizzie Brotherston we heard about the Post-16 Learner Journey Project; helping the Scottish Government understand the learning landscape.  They're holding a hack in April.

Next it was unconference time!

We had a short while of whole-room discussion, before identifying three key areas:

  • Standardising visualisation (headed by Bob Kerr)
  • Small scale voluntary organisations (headed by Leah Lockhart)
  • Sustainability of data projects (headed by Ewan Klein)
Everybody picked a group and we broke apart for the next couple of hours.

The final part of the day was a return to the main room, and further room-wide discussion of the breakout debates.

The standardising visualisations conversation focussed around bringing people into conversations about data using visuals.  Someone pointed out that if news readers used Open Data visualisations, the general public would be a lot more interested in Open Data.  It's interesting to imagine a future where data visualisations are embedded into the world, into the landscape.  To be able to interact with data meaningfully, you've got to know what it is - to recognise it.  A standard - think periodic table - would help people to know exactly what you're talking about straight away.  This goes beyond graphs and charts, into a world of layered visualisations that allow layered public contributions of interpretations.

Those interested in small scale voluntary organisations discussed data holding and data access issues, including strategies for persuading big organisations to open data (eg. by showing success stories, and proving a certain return on investment).  It was agreed that interfacing with developers is important to get things done that organisations really need; but organisations might not know what they need.  It was discovered that there's a lot of crossover between groups represented by people who were in this discussion; common needs but gaps in talent.

Finally, with regards to sustainability of data projects it was agreed that strategies are needed for keeping things going beyond short hack events; how to sustain that burst of energy for a longer term usefulness?  How to keep track of everything that's going on, and link communities with events (see OpenTechCalendar!).  Some kind of coordination body might be useful, or working groups / task forces.

We wrapped up, collected everyone's details for sharing (to ensure sustainability of the outcomes of the day by making sure everyone can keep in touch!) and people began to drift away.

There was an enormous positive energy throughout the day.  Discussions were lively and passionate, and we had an excellent mix of people, exactly as hoped for.

NB. It looks like Joined Up Edinburgh will come under the umbrella of the Scotland branch of the Open Knowledge FoundatioN, so will be a good place to keep an eye on now.  And to keep in the loop, join the Joined Up Edinburgh mailing list.

Other people have blogged about this too.  Check out these by Leah Lockhart and Dave Meikle (more links welcome).