Six (quite long and rambling) things about Open Data Camp 6

1. What is Open Data Camp?

I’m on a train heading south from Birmingham New Street. My day started in Aberdeen. It started in Aberdeen because I was at Open Data Camp (ODCamp) and this year OD Camp took place in Aberdeen.

This was the sixth Open Data Camp so frankly it shouldn’t need any introduction. But just in case:

  • Open Data Camp is an unconference about Open Data
  • an unconference is a self organised, low-cost, participative alternative to a conference
  • open data is data that anyone can find, use and re-use
  • Aberdeen is a city towards the North East of Scotland with a very old university and a very new and rather fabulous university library

2. Wardley Maps, a good thing or a bad king?

I think I learned more about Wardley Mapping. It’s one of those things that has become very voguish in certain gov-tech circles. This does not, necessarily, mean that it is a waste of time. Sensible people who I trust and respect think it’s a useful tool. That does not, necessarily, mean that it is not a waste of time.

The key is to understand what the tool does and does not tell you, when it’s the right tool to use and when it’s not. It’s been on my list to put some time aside to get my head around but I haven’t had/made the time. So when Simon Worthington pitched “Wardley mapping!!! but for data” I was there. There is a very good and sensible write-up of the session followed by less sensible commentary by Tom Forth which did somewhat reflect where I was.

Luckily Simon Wardley (for whom the maps are named) has written a lot of stuff to help me (and you) understand it.

3. Register here

There was much talk about registers. Including a session all about registers. Because of the presence of people from the UK Government registers team we focused on that project. (Yes there is a register of registers) I found this helpful in understanding more about what this is and is not trying to do. This service essentially delivers a cryptographically signed list on request via an API (or you can download the list as a CSV). GDS is providing the infrastructure to do this but the content of the list is the responsibility of a subject matter expert.

So though these registers are often described as a “single source of truth” it would probably be more helpful to think of them as “a provably accurate report of what the person in government who is supposed to know this stuff says is true”. It’s a source of truth if you trust the bit of government responsible for the data.

This is basically a good idea. I’m a keen user of the four registers of local authorities in the four nations of the United Kingdom. If the Scottish Government says this is the list of local authorities that’s good enough for me.

Exciting? Maybe. It’s actually not that useful to be able to get the definitive list of local authorities in England alone. Usually you want to match that list to other lists. There is a widely used way of doing this… the GSS codes. The current registers don’t contain GSS codes. The expectation is that lists of GSS codes would ultimately point back to the local authority register. I have no idea how ONS feel about this. They might feel that they already have a perfectly acceptable and widely used and understood system for doing exactly this. I don’t know. But as a mere user of government data there is a logic to building up registers in a robust, trustable and verifiable way. Unless this happens the gov.uk registers service runs the risk of being the 15th standard.

https://xkcd.com/927/

What we need is some dog-fooding.

The more government departments (and agencies and local government) build their own services around their own registers of things, the more registers to build services on top of and the more incentive the people who know things have to maintain registers of things they know.

Wow. It turns out I have a LOT of opinions about registers.

4. Data strategy

Lucy Knight ran a session about data strategy.

I’m basically pretty cynical about the value that strategies add to organisations. Elspeth Body suggested this may be because I’ve met too many poor strategies. That’s entirely plausible.

I think what I heard in the room was a suggestion is that a good data strategy is short and gives people a tool to understand what they should be doing (or potentially should be doing differently). I kind of like that. Does this mean that the Government Design Principles are a strategy? If so I’m prepared to become less cynical about strategies.

One day I’m going to write a blog post about what can can learn from integrated emergency management approaches. One of those things is that you don’t need a lot of strategy. In fact you only get people working on new strategies when it is necessary to help the tactical level.

5. Mapping, can we make it pay?

Jez Nicholson (of Open Plaques fame) and I pitched related topics and so we ran a session together. I wanted to know if anyone had any good ideas for making openstreetmap.cymru financially sustainable. Jez wanted to talk more broadly about how and why people commit to crowd sourced projects. Notes were taken. We were also joined by Liz and Terence of Open Benches.

We did not solve the financial sustainability challenge. Though we did identify that one of the nice aspects of crowd-sourced projects is that the need for actual cash can be very low.

In the case of openstreetmap.cymru there were some interesting ideas around taking a very project-based focus to our work… next month we focus on Carmarthenshire for example. This could lever the power of volunteers to improve the underlying data, demonstrate our work to the community that are already keen on it and potentially this could be suitable for Patreon type funding. Needs more work but this does feel like the direction to go in.

6. There were other great things

Owen Boswarva convened a discussion on the Geospatial Commission (which doesn’t seem to exist as a thing on gov.uk. It ranged far and wide. This is massively important but it’s hard to keep track. I’m immensely grateful for people like Owen and groups like OSM UK for paying attention and making contributions to the process.

I wish I could have gone to loads of other sessions and I expect you do too. Luckily notes were taken in most of them. Find them here.

As an occasional govcamp organiser I know well that these events don’t happen by chance. A huge thank you to the several people involved in organising it.

Here’s to the next one.


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