Open Data — you’ve been so good to me 💕

Ahead of the 4th Open Data Camp in Cardiff later this week, I figured it would be a good time to take stock of my own relationship with Open Data.

At Open Data Camp (and at open data events in general), we talk a lot about the benefits that open data can bring to organisations — local and central government, wider public sector, charities, businesses, etc. We talk about what those benefits are, how we can achieve them, and how we articulate them to the powers-that-be.

So rather than write another piece from the organisation’s point of view, I’m going to talk about what open data has done for me, personally.

I’ve been knowingly working with open data for around 7 years, firstly in one of the most progressive open data Local Authorities in England — Trafford — and more recently setting up my own company (Propolis Open Data Factory). I’ve been really lucky that open data has been a vehicle that has allowed me to develop my own skills— here are some of the good things that have happened.

Open Data has helped me make a difference

When I started to work for Trafford Council, I didn’t do it because I wanted to be a public servant, or do my civic duty, or help the community. I was fresh out of University, and needed money. As the months and years passed, and I started picking up different areas of work, I realised that I had skills, and these could be put to good use — mostly as an early and small link in the value chain which ultimately resulted in improving the way that social care case-workers dealt with children and families in need.

I actually started to develop real feelings of pride that I was contributing to the delivery of critical services in a small part of the North West, feelings that I know are echoed in local government around the country, and epitomised by the people that organise and attend events like LocalGovCamp.

While I knew the stuff that I was doing was helping, it was small, and disconnected from the front-line. When I picked up the open data portfolio in Trafford, I began to be exposed to a much greater variety of front-line services, and the data that supported them. Services from across the whole public sector operating in Trafford, as well as the voluntary and community sector (VCS).

This was a proper eye-opener for me, and I started, with the team at Trafford Innovation and Intelligence Lab, to work with data to help these services. This was extremely rewarding, on a personal level — being able to bring together open datasets from all over the place, and turn them into new intelligence that could be acted upon, to better understand problems, or deliver services in a different way.

As well as supporting public sector services, release and acquisition of open data led to an incredibly fruitful relationship with the voluntary and community sector in Trafford. Conversations with VCS groups allowed us to prioritise release of open datasets, and gave the Lab direction in developing area profiles. I also launched open data surgeries and pop-up labs, to give us greater exposure to VCS organisations, and we helped a lot of groups with applications for grant funding and general understanding of the local area. I know I’m really lucky to have had the opportunity to speak to the inspirational people running these groups and services, and to know that I’ve been able to help them in some way, using open data, is tremendously rewarding.

I’m now working with more open datasets, from across the whole of the country, to try and get people using data. While it’s early days, my work with Department for Communities and Local Government, Office for National Statistics, the NHS, and Scottish Government (all with Swirrl) on demonstrating how we can use data differently is really exciting (for me), and I’m hoping it can contribute to a more general increase in use of open data to support data informed decision-making.

Open data has forced me into public speaking

I used to hate speaking in public. Like really hate it. I’d done things in the past in front of smallish groups of people — taking small teams of social workers or educational psychologists through performance reports or similar. When it came to presentations to larger groups, they were rare, and I loathed them. When I picked up open data in Trafford, I was suddenly thrown into a more public-facing position, and I found myself having to speak in front of thousands of people (not all at once).

Talk to delegation from Taiwanese Government who were interested in how government in UK uses open data

The thing about doing this, though, was that I seemed to be pretty good at it. I still hated it, and I still couldn’t (can’t, actually, even now) eat before I’m due to speak, but because a) I know what I was talking about, and (more importantly) b) I’m passionate about the fact that open data can really make a difference, my talks are generally well-received, and I actually began to enjoy it. I’ve been really, really lucky to speak at some incredible events — the ODI Summits probably stand out for me, but there are many more, from hyperlocal community events attended by hundreds of passionate local people, the Taiwanese Government, to regional open data promo events.

Open data has allowed me to develop a creative / technical streak

My absolute favourite thing to work on is creative and technical stuff. In a cruel twist of fate, it’s probably also the thing that I’m worst at. I really, really love playing with data — trying to visualise it, or creating tools that allow people to play with, or think about data differently. I know that I mostly have other things to do, like documents to write up, or training courses to design, but once done, my treat to myself is to try and build something with data.

Open data has given me data sets to work on, and a purpose to do it. With no training, I’ve learned to make stuff using d3, html and css; R, r-studio and Shiny; and Tableau. I’ve made some stuff using open data that I reckon is pretty good, and is really making people think about how data can help make a difference (some on my blog home page, and some in the pipeline).

Fail.

Some things didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, like when I tried to visualise crime data with Super Mario Maker, but at least I tried :-/

Friends and Community

Now this is the big one. When I properly picked up open data in Trafford, I joined Twitter. Though I probably didn’t realise it at the time, these two things combined to put me into the most incredible community there is. I’m not going to start naming anyone, because there are too many, and I’ll invariably leave someone out, but the the people that work in this field are brilliant, supportive, and generous.

ODCamp organisers and volunteers (Did I mention my sweet photoshopping skills?)

Nowhere is this more evident than with Open Data Camp. I’m lucky to have been part of this from the beginning, and intend to stay with it for a long time to come. When we see tweets like this:

I know that the organising team will go out of their way to make this person (and ALL attendees) feel part of the community, because that’s what we do — the more of us there are, the more chance we’ve got of doing something that helps make a difference.

What does this have to do with Open Data Camp?

Well, there’s talk of a session being pitched by Catherine Brown, CEO of the Food Standards Agency, talking about the benefits of open data, and how we can articulate them to other people.

If it goes ahead, and I’m sure it will, then I’ll go and make sure that these personal benefits get an airing alongside the more obvious (but no less important!) bigger picture ones.

If anyone at open data camp wants to talk to me about any of the things I’ve written about above — or anything else, please please please ask me.