Opening up data: the experience with election data

A review has just been published into the ‘Open Election Data’ project, which was an attempt to make local election results available from councils in a format which would allow others to collate, republish, analyse or otherwise use the data. (At the moment the data is often put online in very inaccessible and inconsistent ways – e.g. one council might have election results in a pdf, another in a graphic file, another as text on the page and so on.)

The list of lessons learnt from the project casts a wider light on why the public sector so often seems to struggle with IT projects or with making data available, including:

There is a lack of ‘corporate’ awareness/understanding of open data issues, and this will inhibit take up of open, linked data publishing unless it is addressed
For many of the councils the project came into contact with, response to the initiative was by an individual, often the web manager/master working on their own initiative, rather than as a result of any corporate interest from their councils in open data.

But perhaps most damning is this:

There is a lack of even basic web skills at some councils
Worryingly there were councils where no-one had even basic web-authoring skills (i.e. a good understanding of HTML), being merely relegated to fill in forms in an (outsourced) content management system. In a world where the web is becoming the main method of communication with citizens and between bodies, this is not unlike having a finance department with no-one who understands the core rules of accountancy. Without those basic skills as a foundation there is no way a body can hope to produce linked data.

It may not be necessary for anyone in the council to make use of HTML skills, yet if no-one has them it becomes much harder to sensibly select, manage and judge contractors and suppliers. But it runs much wider than this. After all, why do so many council websites even now lack basics such as RSS feeds or have URLs that perform dreadfully in search engines? It’s because no-one involved in the commissioning, specifying and managing knows enough about the technical details to be able to spot the poor quality work or the sloppy corner cutting – or understand the many benefits that having RSS feeds or good search engine performance can bring.

In fairness to council staff, councillors are sometimes far from shinning lights themselves. Similar to attitudes towards numeracy, there is a far too widespread habit of seeing technological ignorance as acceptable even if the person in question is in a position where they should make or scrutinise decisions about technology.

Meanwhile, in happier news Francis Maude has kicked off a consultation over the next steps in opening up public data. The principles being set down look a good set.