Shared City Learning around Open Data

One of the benefits with working with the open data community is that it is genuinely open, and happy to share good practice and learn from what others are doing.

For cities facing difficult budget decisions at the same time as developing more online and digital services, this sharing of information is invaluable, and in Manchester we have learnt alot already from working with our European colleagues in Helsinki and Amsterdam and others, as well as cities in the UK.

The UK has a large number of local authorities that vary in size, but which generally undertake many of the same functions – even if the way they are organised can often be different, and the challenges for rural and urban communities may not always be the same. For a long time Manchester, which is one of ten local authorities in the Greater Manchester urban area, has worked closely with other large UK cities outside of London, and this is no different when it comes to Open Data. Although there are times when we compete for government funds, there are also times when we have benefitted from working together.

Over the last three months I’ve found it useful to understand what is being undertaken in Belfast and Birmingham – and have been able to bring that back into our discussions at Manchester.

Although DataGM has helped release a lot of data across the metropolitan area, within the city of Manchester we realise we need to better educate officers around how open data can help them – so that is not just seen as another task. Also, its clear that we need to take on a city wide stategic approach to making data open.

This summer’s Eurocities Knowledge Society Forum took place in Belfast in Northern Ireland. It’s a city that is similar to Manchester in many ways – with a grand Victorian centre, a strong industrial past, world class university research, and a thriving media industry. The waterfront at Salford Quays has been transformed over the last twenty years, including the relocation of some departments of the BBC to its new Media City; and similarly, the Harland Wolff shipyard in Belfast has been regenerated as a new “Titanic” quarter – celebrating where the infamous ship was built 100 years ago this year.

Speaking with the heads of technology at Belfast city council they’ve taken a very pragmatic approach to releasing open data. Releasing data sets as they are able to, and where there is no difficulty in doing so. At the moment they only have a small number of data sets available (see here) and a single API.  Manchester’s own open data list is also publicly available and we hope to be enhancing this in the coming months. We can add to this the “Greater Manchester” data, especially around transport, that is available via the DataGM portal.

We were pleased to recently host James Cattell from Birmingham City Council. Birmingham is, I discovered, the largest single authority in Europe, and James is currently working to develop a strategy for Birmingham around open data. Some key points came out of the discussion we had with him.  From the start he made it clear that he isn’t interested in any personal data – which is often a concern of council officers – and that even when it’s anonymised he feels that it can be used to identify an individual.

Secondly, he highlighted the importance of political buy in, something we are also very grateful for in Manchester. In Birmingham’s case a hack day they undertook wasn’t just about new “apps” but provided some useful visualisations. A simple visualisation of the council’s “budget book” where in a single picture you could see at a glance how the council’s money was split by department was one good example. Interestingly, the difficulty was releasing the data (which was already publicly available in a PDF) in a machine-readable format.  Cattell was able to do it but by the time he had, the person developing the visualisation had manually extracted the data from the PDF! Unecessary work all round, in other words.

James is now working on a plan and strategy for Birmingham’s open data – and in the spirit of openness has made this available – as he develops it. His presentation provides a useful introduction to open data in a public sector context, with some additional thoughts on what makes for a successful hack event.

Over the next few months we’ll be getting good practice examples from other cities in Europe – and sharing them via this website.

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