How can we make open data work for our users?

For a long time, there’s been an established view that publishing more open data should encourage the proliferation of new applications and services across the public and private sector based on the availability of common datasets across local authority boundaries. 

Historically in Hackney, we’ve only ever dipped our toes in the world of open data and to be honest, we don’t know whether there’s enough evidence to prove that simply publishing as much as possible will realise these benefits – we just don’t know enough about the user need to justify a big bang open data offering.

That being said, we’ve been inspired by the ODI, Nesta and others who are keen to encourage greater transparency and common standards in data publication and we have reviewed some of the good practice of other local authorities who’ve experimented with open data portals in recent years. But our HackIT manifesto tells us to think big and act small – we don’t want to dive into the deep end of an expensive open data portal for publishing every non-personal data set we can find. Instead, we want to understand the kind of data users want to see, and work out the most simple and cost effective way of providing that data in a useful way.

Currently, we don’t proactively publish the data that is most commonly requested via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, which results in a significant burden of resource spent re-actively responding to FOI requests. In his 2018 manifesto, the Mayor Glanville committed us to more transparency and this has helped shape a set of basic principles to help us experiment with user focused open data publication. We’re keen to open ourselves up to some challenge on this and share what we learn as we experiment:

  • Focus on releasing data commonly requested via FOI – We believe that concentrating our open data offering on the most frequently requested topics will release significant amounts of officer time and provide a better service for residents. Therefore, we will focus on these opportunity areas first.
  • Use common standards wherever possible – to be valuable for developers and organisations, we need to publish our data in a format that is easy to join across local authority areas. Where a standard doesn’t exist, we will try to match other Councils who are already publishing this data to maximise reusability. We will openly publicise our data structures to encourage reuse by other local authorities.
  • Automated with a focus on currency of data – to be of maximum value in reducing the FOI burden we face, the data included in our open data products should be as current as possible. To ensure we aren’t just moving the resource problem from FOI administration to open data publication, data updates should be automated and require a minimum amount of officer time to publish.
  • Adopt a flexible approach to the technology we use to publish our data – we don’t believe in being constrained by an online data portal for publishing open data. We will aim to use the best modern technology and data analytics techniques depending on the data involved to provide a data dashboard, visualisation and full download of the dataset. We are motivated by providing a great user experience that’s easily discoverable first and foremost.
  • Aim to meet GDS design standards – all of our products will be designed in line with modern, accessible design standards and we will always test our products with our users.
  • Understand our impact – we will always begin by understanding the baseline volume of FOI requests for the data set in question and monitor over time, the impact of publishing the dataset. We expect to see more exemptions (where an FOI is refused under the grounds that the data is already published) and over time, fewer FOI requests overall. If the data set isn’t reducing FOI demand, we will look for other areas where we can add more value by publishing new data.

Our first experiment is with Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) data (that’s parking tickets to you and me…) – it’s one of the most commonly requested datasets and we think publishing this openly will help residents answer their questions in a more timely way and reduce the time we spend responding to FOIs on the topic. We’re experimenting with providing a simple  app on the parking pages on our website, which will allow users to extract the type of information from the data that is often asked for in FOI requests. Our great User Research team are helping to keep us focused on delivering something simple and intuitive for residents. We’ll also be trialing a light touch open data portal which will allow us to curate our open data sets in one place on the website. We’ll share more as we develop our MVP over the coming weeks. 

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