18. A lot of “open data” sessions just seemed to me to be variations on a theme, and didn’t sell themselves to me at all. I am therefore worried that some of those discussions are either very esoteric, or insufficiently informed by people who understand the issues rather than the tech.
Where have we come from?
As a data geek (I like the word "mechanic" myself), it's been intriguing to see the conversation around "open data" change over successive GovCamps. A few years back, the question was heartily "How can we get hold of data?" - Tim Berners-Lee was starting out on his comeback tour, and mySociety were beginning to show that data could be made useful with some clever tools.
As I remember it (likely in a fairly
Then things got more interesting, as it turned out everything that had happened so far didn't automagically lead to Amazing Stuff Happening. The question became a necessary "So what?" - as if transparency and accountability weren't enough by themselves! The topic turned to users and reasons and (more often) to interesting examples. Surely, somebody was clamouring for this stuff after all this?
I'm kind of hoping this explains something about why "open data" sessions are a bit fumbly-jumbly now.
Open data got complicated, quickly. Because data is complicated. Jump to the present, and conversations rapidly flit between all of the above either because everybody is involved at the same time, or the people who should be involved, aren't.
"Open Data" is harmful
Or both. The paradox is that it's become difficult to talk about open data firstly because those who were talking about it from one point of view are now talking about it from many points of view. And secondly because those who weren't talking about it before aren't talking about it now. Data silos still exist. Most people still use Excel. Statisticians still output reports.
The term "open data" is meaningless now. Not just meaningless - actively harmful. If you're used to talking about it, then the conversation has begun to fragment and coalesce around more subtle outcrops. And if you're not used to talking about it, then you're put off because nobody can explain what it means - and more importantly, what it means to you. So you carry on as normal.
My session at GovCamp on Data Engagement was, in retrospect, an attempt to get back to the previous question of "So what?". What I really want to do is fence the conversation off from the technical, economic and political aspects of data (although I'm still into all these things) and focus on the why. I desperately tried not to use the term "open data" because I think it would have distracted the discussion. (To be honest, I wanted to find something better than "data engagement" too, hence the phrase "Everyday data".)
And I'm really glad that some of the idea got taken up on day 2 by Tim Davies and others. A "Charter" for engaging with data really starts to delve into how we think about how to make data useful.
I admit I'm a little afraid that the term "Open Data Engagement" just makes the discussion even more vague. What does that mean to you if you have no idea what it is, or what Open Data is supposed to be? Is it all at risk of becoming another buzzword? What about "Data Usability", or "Public Data Engagement"? I'm still aware just how much I hate the terms "Public Understanding of Science" and "Public Engagement with Science". Are we going round in circles?
Should we call a Stats Spade a Stats Spade?
Many people with useful, everyday data and databases really don't think in terms of data. Because the data is about stuff they know, they think of it as "information". Maybe even a "resource". But ask them what "data" they have and they'll probably give you a back-up of their website.
One of the interesting points coming out of the Data Engagement session was that people deal with data all the time - think football, Formula 1, house prices, etc. But do people even refer to this as "data"? Or - more likely - do they call them "stats"? Mention "stats" and people think of tables, averages, and counts.
In a way, "stats" makes sense where "data" doesn't. "Information" makes sense where "data" doesn't. "Data" is tricky because it's all of this and more. It's figures, it's formats, it's visualisations. No wonder even those who understand this get confused when talking to each other. The more you try to take "Data" into the real world, the less the term applies.
Should the "open data" moniker be scrapped instead of more "useful" terms like these? Would this make talking about implementing it more difficult, or easier? After all, any conversation on how to make data useful quickly turns away from talk of even databases and on to other issues (standards, protocols, best practice, comprehension).
Maybe if we talk about our bus times as "public information", and spending figures as "spending figures" then people will be interested in it, and we can stop trying to work out what "open" means.