Democratising Civic Problem-Solving

Steve Messer
Porism’s Blog
Published in
4 min readDec 15, 2017


📷 by gdsteam on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

‘Publish it, and the innovators will come’ has long been an argument for publishing open data. ‘ There are hundreds of computer whizzes who’ll find creative new ways to make…raw data relevant to local life,’ said Sir Eric Pickles in 2010 when pushing the transparency agenda in local government. But we know that collecting, quality-checking, publishing and maintaining data in an open way isn’t without cost. Open data is not free data, and so we should focus on solving problems with open data.

But who should be identifying needs? Once a need is identified, how does one make the case for the data to be published? And who should take the data and apply it, solving the problem?

The hardest question to ask is: who should pay for all of this?

Taking out the bins

Earlier in the year, I came across Terence Eden’s ‘Which Bin Day Is It?’ Alexa skill and I got quite excited. No, not because I’m a self-confessed refuse anorak (binspotting, anyone?), but I like the prospect of avoiding piles of 3-week old bin bags in the kitchen. If my flatmates and I could be reminded of when to take the bins out in an easy way, we’d be peachy.

But the Alexa skill couldn’t be made public because it relied on a semi-public API, and you can’t account for its reliability. Neil Lawrence and the Digital team at Oxford City Council have since made it open, which is inspiring other authorities to do the same, but you’d need every council to publish openly before the skill would be really worthwhile.

So here we have a problem solved by a hack, encouraging the data custodian to commit to reliable publishing. That’s great for Terence, but what about me?! Or you? Or anyone’s bins?

Scraping the data swamp

There is a way to solve this. Each council publishes its bin collection days on its website, and one could use scrapers to go and collect this information. This would build up a dataset of bin collection days for every address in the country. If that were structured and standardised, made open or (even better) published through an API, services like Terence’s Alexa skill could help people like me put the proper bins out.

It’s not the craziest of ideas, it would just need a bit of time and dedication. People like Jon Lawson have done this to openly publish the names, parties and wards of all UK councillors. That list could be picked up by mySociety and Democracy Club projects, not to mention companies selling SaaS to elected representatives. *ahem!*

But who should pay for the hard work once it’s useful?

Feeding hungry people

There are some needs which should be met as a public good, though. Another use case for the style of crowdsourced open data publishing mentioned above is helping food banks to collect sorely needed food items.

Right now, Walsall North Food Bank urgently needs rice pudding, tinned fruit and tinned fish amongst other items. We could scrape their list of needed items and for every other food bank in the country, building up a list of items and the locations in which they’re needed. Publish that openly through an API¹ and apps like OLIO could point users towards their local food bank’s donation point to share excess items. Demand could be met more quickly by broadcasting to a network of charitable folk, powered by the crowdsourced API.

This would be a great use of anyone’s time, but there may come a point when it’s politicised. A handful of people spent x hours solving a problem the Government should be sorting out is likely how it would be said. Finger-pointing aside, the service would need to be sustained to meet the real user need sufficiently and persistently, until everyone was fed.

So how do we go about doing this? Do we need more hackathons? Could there be a programme for technically-minded problem-solvers?

I’ve touched on a couple of ideas in this post, but there’s a growing need for people to have access to data and the skills with which to use it. We have principles for publishing open data, guidance on creating open standards, recommendations for open data portals, and the beginnings of Reproducible Analytical Pipelines.

How do we join up the dots and democratise problem-solving across multiple organisations, with input from hobbyists and other civilians? Along with the guides mentioned above, we have Government Design Principles and a Digital Service Standard to steer civic virtue projects. Creators could self-certify their efforts, declaring a level of adherence to the tenets of good digital service and design. It would provide a way for Government to review the efforts and adopt the solution, remunerating the maker and paying for the service costs.

We’re on the cusp of Government-as-a-Platform becoming truly open.

  1. After reading this, Martin Lugton decided to start building a food bank API. Please go and support the project.

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