Open data projects with local government are ‘hard but rewarding’

Written by Rebecca Hill on 4 November 2016 in News

Organisations that want to carry out data projects with local authorities should be prepared to start small and work hard to find the right people, a conference has been told.

Katherine Rooney speaking at the ODI Summit, with a list of words people are unlikely to use to describe local government

Speaking at the Open Data Institute’s summit in London this week, Katherine Rooney, city innovation project manager at Bristol City Council, said that people needed to be aware of the constraints councils are working under.

However, she said, those constraints can lead to “positive challenges and opportunities”.

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Rooney stressed that “you might have to work hard to find the dynamic people”, especially because some councils are more open to data projects than others.

But, she argued, local government is “the owner and producer of a significant amount of data”, and that many authorities are “just scraping the surface” of opportunities to use open data.

She added that increasing budget pressures on local government means that councils are being asked to work together, which might provide the impetus for councils being more open to data projects.

In addition, choosing projects that would benefit local communities would be a good place to start interacting with councils, Rooney said.

This echoed advice given to local government in an earlier session at the summit, where speakers said councils needed to open up data that would be of most use to their communities.

Martha Lane Fox, a digital advocate and chair of the digital inclusion charity Doteveryone, said that local government needed to focus on “building useful stuff”.

She said this would generate interest and momentum – but only if councils chose things that would have the widest possible impact.

“Challenge yourself to think of something that isn’t niche,” she said. “What are the big wins, and how can this community get behind that?”

Nigel Shadbolt, professor of engineering and co-chairman of the ODI, suggested that councils take a similar approach to that of the Government Digital Service, which started by identifying the 25 most common transactions.

Councils should be thinking about how they can make better use of the data they hold to “take the friction out” of those processes, he said.

Increasing the amount of data that people can access – and helping them access it – will also help engage citizens with their communities and the democratic process, argued his fellow panellist Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web.

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