Being open, an open and not quite shut case?
Open data policies need to become as commonplace as health and safety policies. Opening up needs champions in all departments, not just IT, or open data policy and practice may never get off the ground.
Data holds no value until a human can understand it (or maybe nowadays when a machine can read and report to another machine). Why is it, then, that the common perception is that machines ‘know’ what they are doing? That they, and therefore their creators, talk the same talk?
It is easy to grasp how difficult it is to communicate between generations, between regions, to understand accents, and yet we find it hard to accept that machines and systems do not just magically conjoin in some techie programming way. Maybe because when it does happen, it seems to be effortless.
I remember the feeling when I first wafted my card over the payment machine, now it seems like just another option, which sometimes works and sometimes does not.
There are reasons why we all experience these cutting edge techniques, not because they are commonplace or even easy to develop but because someone somewhere has realised their potential for making money in some way. Because as consumers we often experience this, we assume that it must be like that for every system.
I know this because this is exactly what my daughters expect. But there is not an imdb for everything.
Companies, departments and organisations grow organically. Likewise, systems may have a common starting point - owned by the same organisation, use the English language - but thereafter it can be anyone’s guess how things develop. This is where opening up could and will help.
It doesn’t matter what type of data you talk about, people have the same problems. I went to one of the data challenge days at the newly formed Transport Catapult in Milton Keynes.
My knowledge of the data that transport people use is limited, but as it turned out I need not have worried. They all talked of the same problems; too much, too restrictive, cannot get it all, cannot share, not complete, not compatible, privacy, security, etc.
Those whose work does not revolve around databases, data manipulation or systems, still need to know about the benefits of opening up. Without feeling too out of your depth you could do worse than go to the Open Data Institute’s Friday lunchtime lectures.
One such lecture, in March 2013 given by David Mitton of ListPoint, illustrates how opening up and creating data standards really do help. He gives an example to show how this can be translated into monetary worth.
Prior to the awful events of the ‘Soham murders,’ police authorities were trying to integrate their reference databases. It was taking years and they were seriously stuck because they could not agree on how to categorise counties, offences, etc. That is how to list them in a database; should male be M or 001? Should Essex be represented as ESX or EX101? and so on.
After the event, when it became known that had there been a national database this tragedy might have been avoided, the subsequent report advised that they should just get on with it.
Effectively use all the categories, open up the categories so those creating the national database know them all and can map them, a bottom up approach. It worked, the project came in on time and this approach saved £2.5million.
After this it seems that as all the categories were mapped and known about, others started using the same lists, saving time and money, making everything more interoperable.
Dermott Joyce (of Liberata) in a subsequent guest blog for the ODI goes on to quantify future savings, potentially, of £650 million. Basically, how re-using and recycling data standards and code lists (that is using a number or symbol to represent a location, an activity, revenue source) can save money.
The national police database was effectively an example of internal sharing, for there can be degrees of opening, and it is true that departments working for the same organisation do not share.
I am sure those who look at business processes come across examples all the time of spreadsheets and databases being created that mirror those of other departments or even just other teams, in the information they are collecting, even if methods may differ.
David Mitton goes on to elaborate how opening up categorisation has helped us all. I love his example, dear to my heart, of car details and the DVLA. How great it is now that you can put in your registration number when renewing your insurance and it knows your car!
It would seem to be, therefore, a good thing for a department or firm to consider a partial or half opening up policy. To see where data collection is duplicated or where there are systems that have had to be created to merge databases that on renewal or updating could be simplified, by opening up standards and lists.
But then maybe not. For others such as Emer Coleman, who spoke at the recent ‘Making a Difference with Data’ launch event held in Birmingham, feel that things need to be speeded up.
She called for large systems integrators to revisit their long term contracts, release data and allow the innovation benefits to flow and for UK cities to speed up their open data agendas.
Whether you want to go slowly or speed up, unless people know more about ‘opening up’ and discussions start in all departments, then an open data policy may just flounder as something IT should look at.
For opening up needs champions in other functions. Open data policies need to become as common place as health and safety policies.
Judith Carr is a recent Masters student at Birmingham City University whose research focused on open data and local government adoption. An open data enthusiast, Judith's Data Plus column looks at all aspects of the topic from ideas to applications and from the pragmatic to the fantastical.
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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