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100+ cities worldwide join Open Data Day

The Open Knowledge Foundation's Open Data Day '14 connected 100+ cities on five continents. Vicky Sargent rolled up her digital sleeves at the Birmingham event.

Signing up for Saturday’s Open Data Day in Birmingham I hadn’t realised it was one of more than 100 similar sessions taking place on the same day around the world.

With cities participating across five continents, including six in the UK (Birmingham, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford, and Sheffield), 16 in the US, 32 in Japan, and 14 across Africa, this was a genuinely worldwide happening, with experience shared as it happened via Twitter, Wikipedia and a host of other online tools.

Co-ordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF), the point of Open Data Day 2014 was to get people in cities around the world writing applications, liberating data, creating visualizations and publishing analyses using open public data.

The activity, says OKF, will support and encourage the adoption of open data policies by local, regional and national governments. Support is needed.

Many city officials, whose default position is ‘closed’, say they are struggling with the business case for opening up their data, arguing that it is a costly and troublesome diversion from the business of keeping vital services running while budgets are being slashed.

The open data camp, by contrast (I must declare an interest here) argue that opening up data is key to reinventing public service provision that is both affordable and relevant to an ageing, global, post-industrial society still struggling to adapt after the financial crash of 2008.

So what were people actually doing on Saturday?

Its too early to do a comprehensive trawl of all the Open Data Day blogs and tweets (#ODD2014), but ahead of the event the OKF were suggesting a huge range of activity.

A focus on app making and general discussion of open data in the UK, visualizing environmental data in Denmark, and finding bicycle and other transportation data in Argentina.

Work with Ministry of the Interior data in France, identifying teaching and research materials in the public domain in Ireland, and in Burkina Faso, data expeditions on gold revenue, energy supply data and public budgets.

In Birmingham (#ODDBrum) around twenty of us, organised by the community led Open Mercia and the voluntary sector consultants RnR, got together in a room donated by Birmingham City University.

Participants included a couple of BCU computer studies students (‘there’s code coming out of our fingertips’), a number of digitally savvy citizen activists, and one or two entrepreneurs (like me) running SMEs focused on digital and data activity.

The goal was to build a West Midlands datastore in a day by identifying and then uploading relevant datasets.

Part of the day also focussed on the role of Freedom of Information requests in unlocking data held by public bodies, how to make these requests, and likely outcomes when you do.

One of the group had helpfully created the skeleton datastore before the event – you can see a more populated version here using CKAN, the open-source data portal platform.

So we set to work. My contribution was to identify, extract and upload some public health outcomes data on life expectancy for the region.

This I tracked down via the Public Health England website, although I have to say, even though I have pretty good knowledge of data available in this field from my day job, it wasn’t that straightforward to get to the actual spreadsheets with the data I wanted.

Once found, it was easy enough to extract the figures for the 14 West Midlands local authorities, create a .csv file and then upload it onto the datastore with an appropriate file name, description, tags and license information.

At time of writing, 54 datasets sit on the datastore, including Big Lottery West Midlands grant data, circulation data for newspapers in the region, Birmingham Business Rateable Premises, various of the region's council spending over £500, and spending by schools and pupil referral units.

That probably sounds a bit random and of little value, and observers may ask where exactly all the commitment and energy unleashed by Open Data Day, and so evident on Twitter, will lead.

Further down the line, we optimists believe it will bring greater openness and transparency to government, better informed decisions about use of public resources, more engagement of citizens with public services, and the creation of wealth and social value from the intelligence stored in data.

Just a few things worth giving up a Saturday for.

Vicky Sargent is leading the ‘MAKING A DIFFERENCE WITH DATA’ programme which will be launched in March 2014. As a Director of BOILERHOUSE Vicky has led digital and data projects for a wide range of public, private and third sector organisations. She is a member of Birmingham City Council’s Smart City Commission and the Department of Communities and Local Government’s Local Data Panel.

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