Open data cities – visionary way forward or just TMI?

Another interesting evening at the Brighton Future of News Group (BFONG) tonight, at which Greg Hadfield, a former Fleet Street journalist and current director of strategic projects at Brighton-based digital agency Cogapp, talked about his desire to see Brighton & Hove turn into an open data city.

Don’t know what that is eh? Don’t worry, neither did I. An open data city is one that freely shares all the information it holds about housing, policing, education, health and every other aspect of life over which there is some institutional control and around which there is some public interest.

The information on hand in an open data city is not filtered, spun, presented or managed in any other way. It’s merely made available in all its glorious rawness, for anyone to do whatever they want with.

In the wake of the MP expenses revelations and the Wikileaks saga, among other recent stories built around the release of huge data sets, I’ve been coasting along with what I think is a fairly mainstream view that’s built around two assumptions. The first is that all of that raw data makes it hard for your regular news consumer to home in on the stuff that really matters – that there’s the danger of a form of information overload, if you like. Which leads me – albeit slightly reluctantly – to the view that I’d rather some trusted journalist filtered the information for me so I know what to concentrate on.

The second assumption is that no public institution in its right mind would ever agree to this kind of information exhibitionism because the risk of sharing something damaging is not so much substantial as inevitable.

Last week’s site launch fiasco didn’t help. It seemed to provide damning evidence of what a slavish adherence to the principle of being overly generous with ones data can lead to. I could imagine senior trustees of potentially public data all over the place pulling in their horns and vowing that no such disaster would ever befall them. And I could kind of sympathise with that – what real use is the information on to anyone except twitchy house-hunters? We’re very good at going off half-cocked in this country, after all.

But tonight Greg Hadfield changed my mind. Rather than criticise the Home Office for making a bodge of the way it presented the crime data on, he suggested we should be criticising it for ‘presenting’ the data at all. Because if all the raw crime data had been freely available in the first place, the chances are that some outlets (the Home Office among them, perhaps) would present it badly while others would not. And we could choose from whom to glean our information.

Whatever the problems associated with information overload – and goodness knows there are a few – wouldn’t we all prefer to put our trust in the collective than in precisely the people who have the biggest vested interest in presenting data in a way that suits them? Even if we’d rather not filter the raw data ourselves, wouldn’t we rather have the option of aggregating the output of numerous information providers to get a more rounded picture of what the data means?

Less easy to get past is the notion that institutions will fight to the death to prevent having to share data in this most un-English of ways. And in truth this one is going to be a hard nut to crack. Greg told me after the event tonight that there are many individuals in the crucial Brighton & Hove organisations – the council, the police, the parole service, the transport operators and so on – who have the vision to see the benefits of sharing their data. But he also acknowledged that there’s an institutional nervousness about the idea that runs deep and will be hard to shift. And it’s this deep-seated caution that I fear may scupper Greg’s plans for a while yet. But I do hope he proves me wrong.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 7th, 2011 at 11:38 pm and is filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Open data cities – visionary way forward or just TMI?”

  1. […] Cathy Watson blogged about a discussion at Brighton Future of News Group; so did Al Horner, Sarah Booker, and Martin Thomas; […]

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