Problem solving with #opendata

We seem to be entering a new and more productive phase of open data.

In the past there had been an approach that could be summarised publish as much open data as possible for example as Defra did in 2015 which did help kick start a new approach for them regarding open data.

Typically if someone senior said ‘we need to do more about open data’ it often boiled down to creating some kind of list of data sets to be released. These would then be hunted down and great effort spent making them available.

There were some consequences to such actions. For example if we looked back at all the data sets released by Defra since 2015 how many of them have been consistently updated and used since?

Making data open does have a cost: it is not free to create. Taking the ‘publish by volume’ approach might not be the best use of scarce resources.

An alternative approach is to focus on solving problems with open data. Martin Waudby from DCLG gave some great examples last night where as a Department they are focusing on solving problems such as the housing market, homeless and building safety by using currently open data or releasing new data.

The OpenActive project sponsored by Sport England and coordinated by the Open Data Institute is trying to solve the problem of getting people more active.

It is noteworthy that the Open Data Institute has just announced funding for four projects around redesigning public services which clearly have a problem solving focus. This has to be a good thing.

I spent some time in the Cabinet Office in 2017 dealing with more than 200 requests from people outside government asking trying to source public sector data. This can be seen as a thankless task however these requests were being made because there was a user need.

People were grateful when they were pointed in the right direction. Often the data was already available but not very visible — see my previous point about a map of the open data infrastructure. Other times a request needed to be directed to the right organisation who were happy to help. Credit to Departments such as the Environment Agency, Defra, DfT, Met Office and many others for providing such help.

So let’s have lets have less of a list driven approach to open data and more of a user driven, problem solving attitude. It will pay off in the long run by prioritising resources, solving real world problems and making everyone involved feel as though they have achieved something positive.