Open Data, Data Democracy and Bath:Hacked

AUK News Digital
Laura apprentice agencyuk

The Agency attended Bath:Hacked event in March, chaired by Richard Speigal and run by Bath and North East Somerset (BANES) Council, who have an open data initiative headed by Jon Poole, B&NES Research Manager, and with the aim:

“We want to kick start the use of open data in B&NES with all the benefits that might entail – transparency, engagement, enablement and a healthy local democracy.”

Our creation at the weekend was a ‘fun’ approach to informing about climate change, and the associated sea level rise that will happen as a result.

Called House/Boat the tool takes your postcode and tells you if your house will be above or below water in the future, based on the IPCC models for sea level rise. You can set whether you are an optimist, pessimist or climate change denier, to test different models of what the future may look like.

The project repository is public and available here, should anyone want to contribute.

Seriously, what is open data all about, and what are the advantages?

The open data movement, at its core, is built on the idea that data should be freely available available, and able to be shared and reused without limitation.

The idea has been embraced by government, to a certain extent, in initiatives like

Why does it matter? Well, the intention is that with the freedom to use and share data that people are able to innovate and inform to the benefit of society.

Much as the internet is built on a set of principles that look to ensure free availability of information, for the good of humanity, by doing the same with data people can be empowered to build and share.

What does this mean for evidence-informed policy and living in a data democracy?

The open availability of information or data is of particular importance to healthy democracy and allowing evidence-informed policy.

Without the information freely available for anyone to review and critique the effect of policy, or the actions of their government, it is hard for us as a democratic society to be informed in our voting decisions.

The idea of evidence-informed policy is worthy of another article, and it is a principle firmly routed in the scientific method. Unsurprisingly it has been embraced by scientific-approach-led organisations, like WHO.

At its core, evidence-informed policy looks to give us the tools to enact policy that is most effective at achieving our stated goal. A good example is increasing literacy in primary school students, there may be a whole range of interventions we could enact, with different political parties lining up behind their favourite policy. How do we know which is best, or even if some will have a negative impact? This is where we can be informed by evidence, from previous applications of policies, or collected through trials in a subset of schools.

However, this process needs to be open, so everyone has access to the underlying data, able to analyse and critique for there to healthy debate.

The challenges

There are some real challenges to overcome in the embracing of open data, in government or as a society, and the BANES’ Bath:Hacked launch event was the start of their conversation about what these challenges are and how might they be solved.

To my mind, the main challenges are:

  • How to disseminate data, where should it be stored, how would people know what is available, where it is, and how can it be kept up-to-date?
  • How can datasets be unified? The challenges are standardising and reconciling different datasets from a variety of sources. The data available for the Bath:Hacked event, for example, was in a variety of formats, including data on PDFs!
  • How can we ensure privacy of those people represented in the data? Anonymization is very complex, and hard to do well. Fundamentally, the more data is available on an individual, the easier it is to identify them. Additionally, sometimes the output of the data processing needs to be identifiable back to individuals, for the data to be of value. For example BANES gives the example of linking their council tax payment data with other organisation’s datasets to identify residents at risk if non-payment
  • How can we, the public, get government to embrace openness, inline with the open government doctrine? Greater transparency is better for democracy, but their is always a political nature to how governments release data about their activities
  • All of this requires a public that is scientifically or statically literate. As we all know, statistics can be made to ‘prove’ either side of an argument. A public that is engaged in making informed voting decisions, and looks for their politicians to do the same with policy, will require a shift in almost every part of our system, from the political process, to how media report on policy and use data, and how the ability of the public to assess the accuracy of the news they receive.

An open data mindset

Indeed, there may need to be a shift in the public’s attitude to use of their data that is held by public organisations.

Conversely the public seem more than happy to share their data with private organisations, and the outrage over data leaks and misuse, seem minimal. Compare this with the outrage over the mis-handled scheme, which would have provided far greater public good, with the belief that, for example, it would save lives.

Government has started to make a shift towards greater openness, sharing of data and use of evidence in policy, but it advances have been sporadic and doesn’t do a great job of explaining the difference between shared data and open data.

A shift, as a society, to our thoughts on issues around privacy, our model for democracy and approach to use of our data is a long-term, loftier goal. In the short-term, however, how are public organisations, and local and national governments going to move forward in starting to open up datasets and facilitate their use?

My thoughts are that national government needs to get involved, to create guidelines for how the opening, storage, reconciling and use of public datasets should be handled.

A strong legal and policy framework could be advantageous in protecting the public and creating a conversation as well as driving forwards progress in this area.

However, ‘could’ being the key phrase here. Historically legal and policy framework has always lagged behind technological and societal advancement.

It would take a bold and visionary government to pre-emptively start laying the legal framework for such a shift in an area as esoteric as public organisational use of public data.

There are organisations already working in this area, like the Open Data Initiative, founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Regardless, the government needs to do more to start the conversation with the public, after all, we will all gain, government and public alike.