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October 20, 2011 / Jo Ivens

DataBridge findings part 4

This is 4 of 4 blogs on key issues arising from the DataBridge project.

Aim: to summarise the issues raised through the project about the voluntary sector and open data and make some recommendations on ways forward.

The DataBridge project came out of thinking about how the voluntary sector could make use of open data and capitalise on the burgeoning open data movement. After discussion with the sector and with project partners we adjusted the scope to look at how VCS use:

  • their own data

  • existing public datasets

  • open data

Defining open data

In this project we’ve been using the LinkedGov definition of ‘open data’:

Open data is non-personally identifiable data produced by a public body in the course of its ordinary business, which has been released under an unrestricted licence (like the Open Government Licence).

It is underpinned by the philosophy that data generated or collected by organisations in the public sector should belong to the taxpayers, wherever financially feasible and where releasing it won’t violate any laws or rights to privacy (either for citizens or government staff).

We’ve also been taking ‘open data’ to mean data that is made available by public bodies, whether or not it is published in a machine-readable ‘open’ format.

National context

Government has recently released Making Open Data Real, a consultation on their open data policy, which will lead to an Open Data White Paper in the new year. Among other things, the consultation indicates intent to open up much more of central government’s data, and a broad commitment that any organisation providing a public service should expect to publish open data about it. However, there is little in the consultation document about non-commercial uses of data, or on how this will play out at a local level.

Challenges to VCS in engaging with and contributing to open data

Open data presents potential opportunities for the sector but also some significant challenges. Challenges mainly relate to publishing of data, either through participation in any Brighton & Hove data-sharing work or through national policy expectation that public service open data will be published whoever the provider. The concerns fall into two main categories:

Resourcing, capacity and skills – groups acknowledged that there would be extra work needed both to share or open their own data and to make good use of other published data. For groups that do not already have significant data collection, management and analysis in their operational model this is likely to be the biggest challenge. And at a time of increased demand and reducing income, the benefits to the frontline delivery of any additional work need to be much clearer.

Loss of advantage or independence – questions were raised about sharing data in a more competitive environment, especially in terms of competing with other organisations or private providers. This is made more complex by a commissioning environment which is in some cases moving towards preferring collaborative or consortia bids. In this situation, sharing data is seen by some as giving away one of their key assets and potentially risking the independence of the organisation.

Ambition for Open Data in Brighton

BHCC and the Partnership as a whole have made general public commitments to open data, and this is welcome. There is an active developer and tech community in the city and the Open Data Brighton & Hove group is lobbying for Brighton to become one of the first Open Data Cities defined as:

An open-data city is a community where democratically-accountable and/or publicly-funded organisations take the lead in the widespread release of data in machine-readable, non-proprietary formats, with unrestrictive licences that enable and encourage the re-use of data for the public good.

However, more is needed on clarifying what we mean locally by open data, setting out a collective ambition and starting conversations on how to get there. In particular, for the VCS this centres on turning general commitments in to a strategy that complements work on data-sharing and broadening sources of data for needs assessment; uses local government leadership and purchasing power to stimulate social uses of open data, and links the VCS and communities to the tech and developer community.

The Government Open Data consultation raises the likelihood that all organisations receiving public funds should make data relating to this work open. It is unlikely that there will be too much detail from central government about the format of this, so it will be down to local negotiation as to how this is implemented.

Recommendation:

  • Clarity from BHCC on its open data ambitions, including limitations, how to create links between sectors to use open data for service improvement and integration into other initiatives on City-wide intelligence.
  • When seeking to open data from public service providing organisations it is important that all suppliers are treated the same and that requirements are proportionate.

Understanding of open data

Most of our six groups were aware of the concept of open data in terms of opening-up access to additional data held by public bodies. However, there was a disconnect between this general perception, and understanding how the open data agenda might help their work specifically. When prompted for datasets that local or national government might hold that their organisation would find useful, groups tended to list all the information they believed that local government holds that would be useful to them, plus a longer list of information they wished local government held (see Annex A). All groups would have found it helpful if there was a catalogue of local data assets that they could look at to identify useful information.

Some groups were sceptical about the value of open data at all because of the problems they see with existing datasets. For example, the issue of LGBT disclosure, recording of LGBT status and consistency of approach between services.

There is a limited understanding of what specific datasets exist within local government. Work emerging from Department of Communities and Local Government on a Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency includes ‘an expectation’ of a local Inventory of Public Data. This is potentially a useful step, but work will be required to make it accessible and usable for all.

Recommendation:

  • BHCC create a useable, accessible local inventory of public data bearing in mind a range of users and levels of technical skill. This could build on the work by Paul Brewer on the Brighton & Hove Open Data list. As well as listing published data, it would be helpful to list the main data-sources held internally that are not published.
Using what’s already available

The groups we worked with on this project often struggled to find existing data sources. For example, several groups requested data on populations they work with. In many cases, they are aware that information is available, but is difficult to find (and some highlighted that it is was complex to use). There is a dual need here, for better awareness of existing sources with support to use them, and for the VCS to focus more on data and analysis as part of their core business planning and management.

I would find it useful to have details of what data I can get, where I can get it from, and some help on how to use it.” 

Manager, service providing organisation

While Brighton & Hove Local Information Service (BHLIS) exists as a repository of local data, it does not currently serve VCS audiences well and does not include VCS data. As part of the DataBridge project, OCSI have produced a short report with key messages for the City on how BHLIS could work better for VCS and this has been considered as part of the BHLIS Review. OCSI’s BHLIS paper is available on the DataBridge website.

On a national scale, it would be extremely useful for the VCS and communities to have a resource that both identifies (signposts) existing data sources, and provides support to users on how to make effective use of the data to underpin funding bids, demonstrate impact etc. This would support government policies on devolving power to communities, in particular the Community Right to Buy, Community Right to Challenge, Neighbourhood Planning and Participatory Budgeting.

Recommendation:

  • BHCC strengthens the publication of data on local populations through BHLIS or other central point, and promotes this to VCS partners. Also BHCC to promote awareness of the support available to VCS organisations from council experts in the research, needs assessment and BHLIS teams.
  • Infrastructure organisations locally should take into account the open data agenda when planning infrastructure support for the future.
  • VCS infrastructure groups (and/ or CLG) should consider commissioning a support resource to help VCOs make better use of the data and research currently available.

Data held by VCS.

Each group in the project highlighted data they held that could be useful for other organisations in the city, and potentially be published. While there is the option that this can be included in any data store or platform established by the City, there will be a great many questions to be worked through in the development phase. These will include understanding the benefit to organisations and beneficiaries (of the data being made available); teasing out issues around impact on organisational independence and competitiveness (does the data provide useful information to potential competitor organisations); clarifying the link between open data, city-wide data-sharing for needs assessments, and Intelligent Commissioning, as well as many practical points of data compatibility, and resourcing. The Cabinet Office Making Open Data Real consultation is also relevant, with proposals that organisations commissioned by public bodies will also need to publish open data arising from their services.

There will always be differences between quality and robustness of data, but it is important for decision makers to be open to understanding and using all the data we have, especially for service planning and commissioning. For example, information on emerging or future needs is inevitably going to be less robust than historical information on service use, however both are important in the context of commissioning.

Recommendation: 

  • The Community & Voluntary Sector Forum be a partner in the council’s work on a City data / intelligence platform, with the Forum leading on how information and data from the sector can best be fed into the commissioning process.
  • Guidelines and training for commissioner and needs assessors to include using all the data available from a variety of sources, including new or non-traditional sources.

Wider issues

Given the local experience reflected in parts 1-3, the national context of the Open Public Services White Paper and the Making Open Data Real consultation, our general recommendations are:

Open Data is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Open data could indeed enable better research, greater innovation and stimulate public service improvement but this may not happen simply through the publication of an increased amount of information alone, even if in machine-readable format.

The evidence from open data services at national and local level is that there is little impact as yet on mainstream public service delivery. Unless the benefits for local agencies and services to publish their data can be better demonstrated and supported, the risk is that open data becomes identified as a duty, and not seen as providing a benefit. The evidence from small-scale pilot projects such as the NESTA Make It Local work is useful in “banging the drum” for open data, but more could be done to demonstrate the benefits in practical terms.

Different stimuli will be needed to ensure that open data can help produce public service improvement, as well as the transparency and commercial opportunities which have been focused on. For example,  clearer central government policy aims, creation of new kinds of cross-sectoral partnerships, using local government commissioning practice and purchasing power to shape markets. In addition, real transparency on the processes by which services are commissioned and decisions are made will be just as important as data itself.

Data users are important. The emphasis on getting large quantities of data out into the open is welcome, with notable successes being the spending data. However, there is a relatively small audience for raw data (for example, VCS groups are unlikely to be direct users of JSON or other open-format data), and it is not a given that the energies of commercial developers will go into providing tools for public service providers and/ or commissioners.

One group that should be better engaged in the open data process is “data users”, by which we mean those public (e.g. economic development teams), commercial (e.g. research organisations), academic and third sector groups who are primary users of data and information for improving services. These groups provide a critical link in the chain from raw data through to service improvement – and would be able to provide additional useful input into what information exists, what is useful, and how it can be used.

Open data is not free. Open data is often touted as a no-cost solution. However although technical costs are low for publishing and hosting datasets, this radically underestimates total costs. For example, the US data.gov service reportedly costs $4M per year1, and when assessing the burden of collecting data, the LGA estimated LAs were in many cases spending more than £1M per year on collecting monitoring and regulatory data to report to central government2. In other words, data is not free, even if the technology to disseminate it is effectively free. Local Authorities and other public bodies are under immense financial pressure, so may struggle to prioritise releasing open data.

For these reasons we are not supportive of the approach that advocates simply publishing all and any data immediately regardless of application, audience, quality or importance.

Recommendation:

  • Engage “data users” more closely in the open data process, for example in the Local Open Data Panel. Careful thought is needed about priority, presentation, format, and support to use data.
  • A staged approach to open data and more thought collectively across the City about making open data useful, including support that may be needed to make this genuinely open beyond the tech community in Brighton.
  • Think creatively about improving transparency of process around decision-making, service planning and commissioning as well as openness of data

Summary of findings and messages:

Partnership (especially BHCC):

  • It will be important to turn general commitments on open data into a strategy that complements work on data sharing; stimulates social uses of open data as well as commercial, and links VCS with the developer or tech sector.

  • A local inventory of public data will be useful as long as it’s created with a range of users in mind. In the mean time, consolidating and publicising location of data on local populations (e.g. through BHLIS) will provide a quick win.

  • VCS and other external data helps create a richer more nuanced picture of need and impact. Decision-makers must be open to using all data sources.

  • Data held by VCS should be part of any City-wide data sharing. Consideration is needed of the complex issues for organisations and the culture of commissioners around use of data from a wide range of sources.

  • Transparency of process around decision-making, service planning and commissioning will be just as important as openness of data.

Voluntary Community Sector:

  • A greater focus on data and analysis as part of core business planning and management, and making the most of what data is already available publicly. Support is needed to locate and use existing data.

  • The challenges to VCS on open data are similar to those around more focused data-sharing – resourcing, capacity and skills, and concerns about loss of advantage or independence. It is a fine balance between engaging constructively in the strategic level and giving away your edge.

  • There is much that could be published as open data from the VCS, especially useful to local government in terms of identifying service failure and systems improvement.

Overall:

  • Behind the DataBridge project is the premise that having better, richer and more diverse sources of data and information will lead to the ability to make better, more informed decisions. However, it is rare that local decisions can be based solely on published data – a range of other factors need to be taken into account such as local priorities and politics. For this reason, transparency of process will be as important to public service improvement as transparency of data.

  • Open data is a means to an end, not the end itself. Open data could lead to better public services, but will need a specific focus on how it works in a social rather than commercial context.

  • Presentation of data (e.g. publishing accompanying analysis and/ or reporting the key messages) and support to use data are both important factors to be considered when releasing open data.

 1 Quoted in http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/apr/05/data-gov-crisis-obama.

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