Public toilet data set

There are two sides to every dataset, sometimes they both should meet

By: Judith Carr
Published: Monday, September 22, 2014 - 08:58 GMT Jump to Comments

In local government, embracing open data is often a matter of compulsion or driven by the need to reduce FOI requests. This approach can miss the real value of open data.

The header illustration at the top of this article shows part of a dataset of the public toilets situated in Harrogate Borough Council jurisdiction. I did not randomly choose data about public toilets, it just so happens to be one of the three categories of datasets under the Local open data incentive scheme presently running, the others being planning applications and premises' licences.

The concept behind open data, as I have said before, is the value or resource this data can represent. Whether it is just through a greater knowledge or insight into a local situation, the ability to combine  data in such a way as to help innovate a service, produce efficiencies or create an application. I think it is fair to say that a little too much emphasis is placed on apps, the sexy end of data manipulation, and to be frank the creation of which most of us have trouble grasping.

We need to remember that, before all this manipulation or whatever takes place, even before it is a twinkle in a developers eye, there has to be some data collected and entered. The first side of any dataset. This is the decidedly pedestrian, unsexy side. And yet, this data is the nails that could lose the war, so to speak.

Computerweekly.com recently reported that there are real problems with the quality of the data that has been opened up though the UK government's programme, despite there being an understandable 5 star scheme devised by Tim Berners- Lee and promoted by the Open Data Institute, which goes some way to helping data publishers make their data open and will provide a method of certification.

Of course, quality is going to be a problem, but can we please spare a thought for those who collected and entered this data. Take my example of the public toilet data; I am pretty sure that this is not collected and maintained by IT open data enthusiasts. In fact, none of this data would have originally been collected and maintained to be made open.

You only have to cast your mind back a few years, maybe 10. Pretty sure this data may well only have just become a spreadsheet and certainly not in the format as shown. This spreadsheet probably languished in the files of the relevant department and only saw the light of day once a year, if that, when someone wanted to report on the 'toilet situation'. So where was the incentive to keep this information in pristine condition, to be interested in correct formats, for the person who kept the file?

I chose public toilets as an example because this data, now with geo location information attached, is actually really useful, although not in an 'app that that will make us millions' kind of way. Useful for mothers with toddlers, tourists, the elderly, the police. But will this ever get back to those who maintain this data? Will there be some feedback mechanism to say thank you, or "hey this is really useful but would be even better if you could...?"

That is not to say that those at the other side of these datasets do not have their own monotonous  jobs using the data, but in theory they have some kind of product at the end, a visualisation, info graphic, dashboard to show at least. Too often those involved in the 'paperwork' end of creating a dataset are distanced from why the information is useful, the product of the data.

In education, the best way to learn is to ask 'why?'; something parents experience continually when toddlers are young. A very different 'why' from when you ask older children to do the washing up, of course.

In organisations it is quite difficult to ask why, and even if the question is answered, you still probably won't see the results. In the majority of cases you have to ask why not? Maybe not the whole report, but the relevant part, some of the dashboard, etc.

The concept of opening up data, by default, is such a shift in thinking it is going to take more than just a few policy changes, dictated from on high. It needs the people involved to feel engaged in producing this resource, because opening up is, for want of a better word, scary. To be more engaged you need to own that dataset in some way, but to own it leaves you feeling vulnerable.

At present it seems to me, for local government at least, open data policies are only just breaking out of the IT, Business Development departments. You do it because you have to or because it is going to reduce FOI (Freedom of Information) requests. Those who maintain the datasets, I would guess, rarely if ever meet those who are interested in using open data or see the results. I could be wrong, but from past experience, I would think not.

Ian Jones of Leeds City Council talking about the Leeds Data Mill gave an interesting example of a  game that was built around the records showing where those with no relatives or family who had to have state funerals lived; it is called Lonely Bird. The information in this 'game form' has been used by local charities to identify areas where interventions should be targeted. Very interesting, but has anyone gone back to those that collect this data and told them about this? It would be interesting to find out and to see their reaction, to see if their relationship with this data has changed too. If they would like to make it even better, or have ideas about what could be added.

If this has happened, that is great; but it would be even better to hear about it too. 

Local government open data incentive scheme  -

5 Star Scheme -

ODI certificate details  -

Leeds Data Mill - video to presentation details story behind Lonely Bird game and consequent use  -

Lonely Bird the game

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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