Open data is a pile of bricks

open sign

Open data promotes innovation they say. Open data is the future. Open data will enable us to create beautiful, citizen-centred applications. I’m just an amateur in this open data world but it seems to me that open data is just a pile of bricks.

Here it is, that pile of bricks. bricksA big heap of terracotta-coloured bricks, some scuffed, some with bits of ancient mortar clinging to them, maybe enough for a doorstep, not enough for a wall. But that pile of bricks has that hidden promise of becoming something.

That’s like data-sets. All you have is an untidy pile of facts, bits of apparently random brick-like information.

I work in the public sector where we have loads of facts. Take the real time information system for instance. That’s the system in Yorkshire that uses radio signals to track where buses are, so that it can calculate how far away your bus really is from your bus stop. It uses millions of bits of data from previous journeys to work out the average speed of buses at that time of day to predict the likely arrival time. When you’ve done with working it out, you have billions of items of factual information. Like having a whole football field of bricks.

Still bricks though.

But maybe one day someone comes along, looks at the field of bricks, and in their mind’s eye, they can see the Arena or that rusty broadcasting building or the Empire State. Still just an idea and a pile of bricks though.

brick wallThen the next day someone else comes along with a few wheelbarrows full of mortar. Maybe in my weird building analogy, mortar is a load of facts from somewhere else – public health data or a mapping background or feedback from customers. Then it begins to look more like it could become a real creation.

And at that point you start looking around for the other bits of the embryonic building and talk to people who could supply the factual bits that represent doors and lifts and windows and plasterwork.

Anyway you get the idea. Open data brings together different sets of information to make something new and infinitely more useful. It doesn’t always work of course. There’s still the risk that you bring together bricks and mortar and somehow end up with Bridgewater Place. Luckily however the internet is a lot more forgiving and you can just trash it and try again.

Next week I’m going to be involved in something called a ‘hack day’ where we’ll have a ‘data dive’. My love of language means I’m relaxed about the development of new ways of talking about stuff but it’s still important to recognise that this is just complete jibber jabber to most people. So what does it mean in practice?

Well this Friday’s event is about cycling.

cityconnect1What we have are maps of where cycle routes are, where the segregated lanes are and where the quiet roads are. We have data on where accidents have taken place involving cyclists and the cause of the accident according to the PC on the scene. We can overlay this with information other people have got about public health in those areas, where you can get jobs or where schools and colleges are.

Alongside this are ideas about what customers want. Cyclists don’t like being knocked off their bike so maybe they want to know where the safe routes are or where the hotspots to avoid are. Maybe they want chance to meet up with other cyclists.

Which then means we may need to seek out new sources of data. And data that is not static but can develop as people’s experiences evolve.

Will cyclists tell us what their favourite routes are or share their daily commute with others?
This latter part is where open data gets complex for me. Can data that has been openly shared for the common good be exploited by other interests?

There are two broad issues. Firstly, is open data really open or is it data that people have shared for other purposes, which is then made available in ways that they did not choose? Implied public consent to the use of CCTV is intended to be around safety, not to allow tracking and stalking. Location-based apps such as that used by Uber also demonstrate the difficulties. You want a taxi at that moment, not to be sharing where you are for it to be misused for all kinds of other reasons.

closed signSecondly, can open data be exploited by commercial interests who then choose to close down access to the results for their own ends? Or for data to be simply denied to customers because there is no commercial imperative. It is immensely frustrating for instance that NFC (near field communication) could be used to share data with customers in all kinds of useful ways but this option is closed to maybe half smart phone users because Apple is unwilling to use NFC for anything other than its own Apple Pay system.

I’m sure I sound ridiculously naïve but I suppose the point is that it’s not a done deal that open data is going to give you a better customer offering. I’d be interested to hear from people as I’m sure lots of people will tell me I’ve got it all wrong but that’s what’s interesting about coming into this debate now. It’s pretty new, and we’re still working it out.

Please come along on Friday/Saturday if you can. We’ve got a heap of data bricks to be played around with to see if we can make something new and exciting. You can find out more about #hackmyroute and sign up here.