Show me the data! Open data and future thinking

4 November 2016

With digital and technological innovation moving fast, data is increasingly being looked to for the answers to our global problems. But how can we ensure that the web of data is clearly navigated and not a tangled mess? 

Open Data Day. Remixed from images from the Noun Project: thenounproject.com/noun/handle-with-care/. Credit:  Open Knowledge - Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Working in the field of open knowledge and the thoughtful use of digital technologies means that my team is often asked to create or advise on the provision of digital platforms that are innovative. However it’s hard to be forward thinking and navigate complexities in new ways if you are sat behind a desk, working on multiple websites and data platforms with one eye firmly on deadlines and results frameworks. 

To help us to build on our learning and connect with the wider world of Open advocates, the Open Knowledge and Digital Services team took a day trip to London to the Open Data Institute Summit.

So what did we learn? And what can we expect from Open Data in the future? 

Aside from being wowed by the scatter gram nature of Sir Tim Berners Lee’s mind, the cool wit of Clare Moriarty from the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs and realising that the French Minister of State for Digital Affairs and Innovation, Axelle Lemaire breaks with the stereotype of what a politician can be - I also took away the following five points that will help us in our future thinking.

Five take-aways and a little bit of data mould

1. Look closely because the gaps in the data are often where the story is
The storytelling element of data collection is hugely important but to tell that story we need to be collecting the right data and examining it through a critical lens. Often there are holes in data sets and we need to ask why and what can the missing data reveal? 

2. Use language that people understand and build things that people will use
This may sound simple but as Sir Tim Berners Lee outlined in the opening address “building consensus and being clear about needs and priorities takes time and needs investment.”

It is important to work together and co-produce solutions that do not perpetuate existing power struggles but reflect real experiences and needs. 

3. We should see ourselves as custodians of data rather than owners of data
There is no doubt that data can be an economic asset and there is a great deal of talk and thought about who owns data, but if we shift mind-sets to think about how data can be shaped and linked together then it has the potential to grow in value.

In short, linking data makes it more valuable and shareable.   

4. Open data needs the space to grow
Often the best innovation comes about when it is given the time and space to develop. Sir Tim Berners Lee spoke about the importance of data standards and connecting data sets but he also talked about, how given the right conditions, high quality linked data can take shape in ways that are innovative and unexpected.

“I want to see data grow like mould on a petri dish”, he said. “We don’t need apps that show native 5 star data. We need 5 star data mould.”  

5. “Never let a good crisis go to waste”
OK Sir Winston Churchill might not have known about open data, but when he was paraphrased by Baroness Martha Lane Fox we were prompted to be reflective and learn from our experiences. 

We are reminded that Open Data is a choice, it is not a given. Making data open reflects priorities and we should be realistic and learn from experiences and wider contexts.

Adopting the principles of openness and sharing data can shed a different light on issues that have already been identified, but we must continue to be critical and clearly demonstrate the practical use of data. If we are to make the most of data then we must also be transparent in its collection and use. 

Speaking on the future for Open Data, Sir Tim Berners Lee wiggled in his chair with excitement and said “I should be able to right click on EVERYTHING! – I should be able to say “show me the data, show me what’s going on”.

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