Arguments for open local data

Having trouble persuading your managers of the benefits of open data? Or just need persuading yourself? Well here we try convincing all of you.

What follows is a Q&A compiled initially by Dan Slee of Walsall Council and Stuart Harrison of Lichfield District Council. The first part is a bit of background information, the second part comprises some responses to common arguments.

This work is ongoing, and this page will occasionally be updated accordingly. You can watch and contribute on the Open Local Data wiki.


What is data?

Data is information gathered by local and central government. A collection of data is known as a dataset. This can cover a myriad of subjects. For example, it can cover the names of ward councillors. It can be the co-ordinates of leisure centres. It can be the location of road traffic collisions across a given area.

Why is releasing data important to local and national government?

It helps transparency. It helps accountability. It helps decision makers make good decisions and to explain them. It helps democracy.

Why is data important to entrepreneurs?

Bright people at Cambridge University calculate that freeing up data can lead to a £6 billion industry in the UK alone. That’s through building applications and maps to help interpret the information more clearly.

Is data political?

It crosses party and national boundaries.

In the US Barack Obama has argued for data to be made free to help transparency.

In the UK Home Office Minister Tom Watson MP in Gordon Brown’s adminisatration powerfully argued for open data. Central government data repository was created.

Home Office Minister Francis Maude MP has continued to argue for open data.

Some stock arguments against open data, debunked

This is our data. We collected it. Not the public

If the data was collected by public funded employees then the public has an argument to see it.

We don’t like risks. It’ll be a massive risk to make data public.

The way the wind is blowing, it’s more of a risk not to start freeing up data. You’ll appear reactionary and look as though you’ll have something to hide. Besides, the driver for this is 10 Downing Street.

Yes, there may be pain in the short term. In the long term it will lead to transparency and better government.

There will be an outcry about private data being released. We have to be very careful about protecting children and vulnerable people.

This isn’t about personal data. This isn’t about individuals. It’s about communities. We are not looking to release personal information.

It’s too difficult to release data.

For web managers and other web-savvy people it is easy to create a file that can be posted in a format that is classed as ‘open data’ – a CSV file, for example.

There is no universal standard for releasing data. If we do it now our work will be obsolete.

The barrier to involvement is very low, you already have the data – it’s trivial to save an Excel document as CSV and put it up on the web, or extract a KML file from your GIS system. Standards can come later.

It’s fine for the White House and 10 Downing Street. We’re local government. We will struggle to do frontline services let alone this.

It’ll help you do your job more easier and be transparent in what you are doing. Besides, the moves are to make the release of data a requirement.

Data is only of interest to geeks and people sat in their bedrooms.

People said that about social media too. Now, the use of sites such as Facebook and Twitter are soaring.

Ordinary people don’t understand a CSV file so why bother?

Right now you need to be a geek to build an application with data. You don’t to understand the end result.

As technology advances, the barriers for creating an application come down. Think of what Windows did to put computers into the hands of everyday people.

There is no business case for doing this so why bother?

There’s no business case for a lot of things, but we still do them. Why clean streets? Why collect bins? Data is at the heart of what we do, council tax payers have a right to see the data that their money pays for. It can also cut down on expensive FOI requests and also gives the community the raw materials to perhaps show us how to work better.

This doesn’t have the backing of responsible people.

Yes, it does. The US government and the UK government are in favour. The LGA has been supportive of open data projects. So is SOCITM.

What about copyright?

A new license is being created to allow for information to be repurposed.

What if the data we release is wrong? Will we face mass legal action?

With the right disclaimer local government can protect itself from legal action.

This will raise expectations to unreasonable levels won’t it?

Expectations are rising day by day. It’s important that local government plays a part. The expectations now on local government are so low that simply taking part is enough.

6 thoughts on “Arguments for open local data

  1. Pingback: Citizensheep » Arguments for open local data

  2. Pingback: DATA HELP: A site to marshall arguments and explain open data « The Dan Slee Blog

  3. I’m going to be a pedant and state that data is not information. Data, as we normally think of it, is everything that we have collected in a spreadsheet, database or other storage file. As an example, data about a school could be it’s address, the type of school it is (primary, secondary), the number of pupils, the names of all the staff etc etc.

    Information is data that has had meaning imbued into it. So, information about a school could be its position in a league table.

    The conversion of data into information is always a political (note, not necessarily party political) act. In the example above, a lot of schools complained that they were being unfairly judged as their pupils came from less well off backgrounds, had English as a second language, they had a high proportion of kids on statements, free school meals etc etc.

    Subsequently, we now have league tables that rank according to the “value” added by the school.

    As you’ll see from the example above, the data hasn’t changed*, but the information that is presented as a representation of that data has.

    *Actually it did, because schools changed their behaviour because of the information and some of this changed the core data.

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  5. I really wish you hadn’t said “There’s no business case for a lot of things, but we still do them.”

    There bloody well is a business case for collecting bins -if we didn’t we be knee-deep in shit and fighting rats for pavement space. There’s a business case for everything that LG does. It may be a statutory requirement, it may enhance the lives of citizens, it may promote closer partnership. Yes, it may even save money but a busines case isn’t always about saving cash.

    We need to be promoting the positive aspects of open data, not pandering to the nay-sayers looking for excuses. Those positive aspects are the business case for open data and there most definitely is one.

    • Thanks Julian. The whole point of this is to develop some good arguments; no-one here is claiming to have got it right, but it’s a start towards helping people promote open data. If you’d like this document to reflect your thoughts, you’re welcome to add them to the wiki.

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