Guest Post by Pip Tucker: Head of Strategic Intelligence
With the rather sinister job title of ‘head of strategic intelligence’, I’m required to take a very broad and long term view of the information that is needed and produced by, and passes through, Devon County Council. Clearly, it is far beyond my personal capacity to understand the nuances of data about customer satisfaction, service performance, economic conditions and all the rest that affect what the authority does. And although I don’t suppose there is anyone out there who could do that either, it doesn’t matter because if we can harness the efforts of all the providers and users of the information then it can become almost painless.
In the past, I’ve been part of a number of projects that have aimed to bring together information about communities into a single system, so that policy decisions can be made on the basis of the best evidence. That’s a laudable aim: sustainability requires such a broad understanding so that decisions about the economy, say, aren’t passing on their hidden costs in an impact on the environment or people’s health. In these projects we’ve all made every effort to conform to the proper standards – Dublin Core, eGMS, LGSL, eGIF and so on – and asked our developers to build databases to accommodate them. So far, though, none of those projects has really worked, and that’s because the effort required to get the data into a form that matches everyone else’s hasn’t always been clearly greater than the rewards, and as soon as any one of the contributors stops keeping up to date with loading the data the overall quality drops rapidly.
So why am I so optimistic that we can overcome this problem now? Simply, because rather than build a new database to integrate a whole mass of data that can be re-cut and re-presented to a diverse range of different users, we can now use an existing database that’s already doing the job – the web itself. Google, for instance, has utterly transformed the way in which a large part of humanity finds things out, making the search far more important than the provider. It isn’t (yet) entirely a piece of cake – I recently made the mistake of showing my senior management what XML looks like and felt that I’d undone half the good work showing off whizzy maps and graphs in the previous hour in a second – but as with open source software, presenting data on the web is no longer restricted to those who own the systems that do it. Instead, the people who are experts in their own data can take responsibility for their own publishing, and have access to others’. Even better than such ‘open’ data are ‘linked’ data, when each bit of information contains a fixed reference to another bit, so that over time all of these little lego pieces create an information system far bigger and more flexible than those we tried to build in the old days (about ten years ago).
In Devon, we have put this into practice in creating community web pages for the 28 market towns and the city of Exeter that draw their statistics from official national sites like NOMIS and Neighbourhood Statistics, local sites like Devon and Cornwall Police and our own statistics on education, that we provide for our own use, but that are also then available to others. Not only that, but news items are drawn in from the local press and a geographically located twitter feed. We do this partly for our own benefit – these community profiles help the council understand the different needs of different places – and partly as a public service; they are an updated version of profiles we have long provided to help businesses and community groups make their own plans. More than that, we want communities to treat these websites as a takeaway, to use, reuse and mash up the data in ways that we can’t begin to guess at, and if that includes challenging the figures and arguing against council decisions, well, that’s good…
Another part of my job involves the ‘soft’ data, of people’s opinions and wants. Not only am I charged with collecting public opinion, but also developing the dialogue between the council and communities. Providing the statistics is part of that, often being a useful starting point for conversations about priorities, needs and resources. Providing open data to active, digital communities takes the conversation beyond dialogue into co-production, working together to understand problems and find solutions. We may not have reached that stage yet, but open and linked data offer great opportunities to help us get there.