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Open data challenge "cultural, not technological", says institute chief



The main challenge for the UK's emerging open data movement remains cultural rather than technical - persuading organisations and managers including public servants it is worth opening up, and not damaging to do so, Open Data Institute (ODI) chief executive Gavin Starks has said.

Starks made the comments in the informal setting of Electromagnetic Field, a festival of about 1,000 hackers, makers, coders and other techie types which took place recently in the middle of a highly wired-up cornfield in deepest Buckinghamshire.

The publication of open data is on the rise across many fields, he said, including health, social care, transport, and environmental data. Economic data is also set for a major boost next year with the open publication for the first time of company accounts and other corporate data by Companies House.

The institute is an independent non-profit company co-founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and largely funded by government to promote dissemination and use of open data. It works by incubating start-ups that promote positive use of open data - 17 so far; demonstrating the value of publishing data by promoting case studies; and catalysing work internationally, with 20 international ODIs already established across the world and a programme at the World Bank. However the main barriers it encounters still stem from negative attitudes, said Starks.

"We don't see open data as a technological problem, we see it as a behavioural and cultural problem", he said. "We have been closed by default since the industrial revolution. But there is far greater impact through being open than being closed. People can give better feedback, help fix things if they are broken. This is common in academic circles."

Many people are terrified that when they publish their data, people will find mistakes in it, Starks said. "So we need to cultivate an environment that says this is OK: the errors are already there, the data does not get worse by publishing it: we need to publish and see what the quality is."

One of the institute's key current areas of work is in promoting the use of its open data certificates - free templates by which data publishers can self-certify the content and quality of what they produce. This metadata - which includes a description of formats, and how often it is updated - enable data sets to be more easily discovered and used. UK government agencies have started to adopt the certificates including the Met Office and Ordnance Survey, Starks said, and private companies are starting to use them as well.

"The idea is that Google will be able to index [certificates] and enable the discovery of data much more easily than it can today", he said.

Asked what formats are preferable for bodies to release data, Starks said this was "a secondary question right now - the biggest problem we have is getting it published. I would say put up as a csv, rdf, xml or whatever, with an open data certificate - I don't care about the format, as long as it is addressable."

It so happened that one of Stark's colleagues was a fellow speaker at EMF: James Smith, software engineer at the ODI and civic tech activist (pictured), told delegates how he is running for Parliament in next year's general election on a slate of policies sourced openly online.

Smith is standing in his home constituency of Horsham - one of his online-sourced policies is that MPs should only ever stand in the place they genuinely live - and is therefore running against Francis Maude, a government minister with a majority of more than 11,000.

Ironically Maude is also Minister for the Cabinet Office, with responsibility for transparency and open data, and a strong supporter in government of the work of the Open Data Institute. But Smith's "Open Horsham" campaign is being run as much to test democratic innovations in a live setting as to win the seat, he said.

Features of his wired-up campaign include a system for tracking his campaign expenditure online, published as open data according to a schema Smith developed with Spend Network, a company developing tools to analyse public procurement data and one of the start-ups supported by the ODI. He has also been analysing data on candidate spending and turnout at the last election, and is hoping to crowdfund the cost of printing his campaign leaflets - all official candidates are permitted one free delivery to every local home by the Royal Mail. As far as election policies go, strong local issues are coming to the fore such as housing development, Gatwick airport expansion and fracking, Smith said.

Lessons learned are likely to feed into the creation of a national party fielding candidates in other constituencies according to the same open online principles, Smith said. The current working name for the party? "Something New".

Pictured: James Smith addresses assorted hackers, techies and a journalist at this year's Electromagnetic Field festival.
Electromagnetic Field:
ODI Open Data Certificate:
Something New for Horsham:
James Smith blog:
Spend Network:

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