Friday, July 15, 2011

"Forget the data."

Holy crap, Emma Mulqueeny's (@hubmum) blog from yesterday on the next challenge for Open Data is possibly the. Best. Thing. I. Have. Read. In. A. Long. Time.

In particular:
Open data? Awesome, and we are making tracks.

Open Government? HARD, and we are not banging on that door yet."
So what’s the next challenge for Open Government data?

Forget the data.

Find a way to enable these revolutionary ideas, apps, websites and widgets that save time, money and mind-numbing frustration from those who have to engage with government.

Do that, and only that.
This is the conversation we need to be having. Why? Not to work out "how to do it", but because it questions what is valuable and necessary in government.

Open data isn't a technical thing. It's about relevance. If you could do everything, what would you do? If you were hungry, would you eat, or would you talk about how to find out what the best thing to eat is and what the best way of eating it is?

"Open data" that lacks a medium for turning creative use into real-world change is irrelevant. It's what bad businesses do - they invent a million great things, but never actually want people to use them. Instead they use them as examples to tout how great and creative they are, in the strange hope that a people will think a symbol of progress is as good as progress itself.

Until, that is, someone comes along and not only has a better idea, but also actually builds it. For everyone to use.

Is that difficult? Of course - building stuff requires foresight, management, flexibility and the wisdom of knowing what your goal is. Do people do it all the time? Look around you.

Open data needs to be about other things now - including how it's funded, what the audiences are, and what the future holds. But none of these are about data. None of these are technical. We already have a society that runs on data, so data itself isn't a new paradigm.

We can't keep thinking of open data - and possibly even our entire creative efforts - as some kind of "continual prototype". We need to apply it like we applied sewage systems and electricity.

We need to understand that this isn't just about making the game easier to play, but about a whole new game.


Em said...

Thank you for your very kind words Graham. I agree, obviously, with your further thoughts on this.

It would be good to seed some of these conversations amongst the people engaging with government around its open data, so I do hope that this discussion continues - and has an outcome! Natch...

Gordie said...

I'm starting to get worried by this conversation. For me, it has a 'flavour of the month' quality, and worse still, a rallying cry of "Forget that! let's do this instead!"

There's more than one way to improve government, and more than one need to improve it. I'd ask everyone to look at this neat Venn Diagram of government, data and openness from a conference a month ago.

The Open Government Licence (OGL) specifically excludes personally identifiable data. Emma's enthusiasm for apps, websites and widgets that save time, money and mind-numbing frustration are not going to be met by Open Data projects; they're going to be about supporting personal interactions and handling personal data in a way that respects and protects users' privacy.

Tom Loosemoore's AlphaGov and William Heath's MyDex are better role models for how to move government IT in this area. But I'd really appreciate it if we could all watch our language and not get Sir Bonar in a muddle.
Open Data is Good.
Open Government is Good.

Re-designing the interface of government and the User Experience is also good, but please can we invent a proper name for it? Firstly because we need a proper budget for it. Secondly because I don't want my prostate examinations to be Open Government Data. Kthxbai...

Scribe said...

Hi Gordie, thanks for the comment, a really good point. The Venn diagram link doesn't work though - any chance of re-finding?

I agree that the discussion from the "techie" circles (and I use the word carefully) is often confusing to those who are trying to understand what's going on and what needs to be done - in the same way that discussion of how the institutions and mechanics of politics work can confuse techies and citizens.

Running an accountable, yet efficient and quality organisation is a bit like chasing several cats at the same time. What works for individuals and small groups doesn't necessarilly work for large orgs, so there *has* to be some translation and filtered integration from what people say government *must* do, and what they can, or actually should do.

"Techies" are often too bound up in the excitement of novelty to see this, imho.

Recent chats at Open Data Brighton & Hove have highlighted this for me - there are some organisational people who really believe in openness, but do have to fit what's going on into accountable processes - including privacy considerations, etc.

However, too often I've seen the discussion get bogged down in the differences between CSV, XML, JSON, etc. As a web developer these things mean something very clear to *me*, sure - but explaining *why* A is better than B for context C in abstract/organisational terms is *hard*.

IMHO, a lot of government people see "technology" as a way of building a process they understand, in a way that is a) efficient (i.e. speedy) and b) trustworthy (i.e. harder to lie to). However, the design for the *content* is stil very much top-down, because without that, a and b are "threatened".

Current innovation has moved on from this, but still addresses the same issues, just in a different way:

"Efficiency" is now about how we come up with new ways of doing things, rather than just faster ways - although the former can include the latter. Making code available to everyone improves the quality of the code at a speed dictated by the people interested. Making a wiki available to collect content is the same. This is how modern openness is more efficient with less (not no) top-down control.

Trust is built on this openness differently - rather than controlling the code or the content to have an "end-to-end" (design to outcome) sense of security, trust is now a social matter (identity and reputation), coupled with ongoing validation (the "many eyes" approach). It's not always perfect, but a) neither is an end-to-end approach, and b) an open approach lets people TRUST WHAT THEY TRUST.

This is why explaining the difference between CSV and XML is difficult, and also why we need to "Forget the data." CSV and XML are merely the outputs of a particular way of seeing the world. Explaining them without explaining that worldview is just confusing.

Anyway, this is a good but complicated discussion, which deserves more space and time...