4 minute read

One of my largest (professional) regrets is a failed application to run a funded open data project.

The fund was for innovative public library projects. The application had to be from public library workers. I was Library Systems Officer at LibrariesWest (run by Somerset libraries), so grabbed the opportunity of applying.

In the spirit of working in the open, I thought I’d write up the idea. Maybe a library service would like to take aspects of it in the future.

The idea

Within our team we were ‘doing’ open data and had great management support. But open data often has a small audience, despite large benefits. Datasets are held on data portals with CSV downloads and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). They tend to be used by data analysts and software developers.

Surely libraries can improve on that? Public data should be able to engage the public, and there’s no more perfect setting than a library for that. I wanted to create a website that would not only provide links to the data we were publishing, but tell stories about that data. Each time a new dataset was released it would have accompanying visualisations and interesting insight.

It wouldn’t be online-only. We’d produce physical postcards for the datasets, reproducing some of the visualisations and information into a physical form. These would be scattered around libraries for library users. When there were enough of them we’d create a newspaper that would collect together the data stories and visualisations. I had an image of someone choosing the library data newspaper from the library newspaper racks, then settling down on a comfy chair with it.

Having gathered interest through online and physical, we’d have an event. A bit like a hackathon, but ensuring everyone had a chance to get involved and explore the data. People could go away happily having chatted about the data, or loaded up a spreadsheet. Or even gone as far as creating some software based on the data. It would be educational as well as engaging.

Finally, we’d produce a small booklet bringing it all together. The visualisations, stories, and ideas from the event. And put these into the library catalogue and distribute in libraries.

Reminiscing honestly back on this idea, I still stick by it. If anything, I like it more than ever, to hell with other projects! Although hardly possible at the moment, it would have been amazing to do. It would engage the public with library open data, show that data wasn’t just something for developers, and generate great ideas.

What went wrong?

The application process was to complete a form covering the idea, and include a sponsor statement from manager and head of service. I think that was probably competent at least.

It went well enough to move me to the final stage of the process, which was a judging panel. At that stage the project was declined. After dwelling on this for years, I think there were a few problems.

1. Too self-indulgent

It admittedly sounds like a lot of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” things. Wouldn’t it be cool to create a newspaper, to put visualisations on postcards, to waffle on about data in a website, etc.

And there’s a strong smell of it being overly self-indulgent. Is this what actual humans need, or is it what a software developer wants some money for?

We’re not giving this guy £7,000 to go away and have a good time making newspapers. And an event? Sounds like he wants a party for his ‘open data’ mates! He’ll be buying alcohol.

Imaginary judging panel discussion

I don’t believe it is those things, but the successful projects I saw seemed to express worthwhile outcomes better. Which leads onto the next problem.

2. Not everyone knows about open data

One of the problems with a general fund is that it’s difficult to introduce unfamiliar concepts. If your idea is to tackle poverty, or hunger, or help those with bereavement, that doesn’t need much background. No-one with a heart is going to go, “Hang on, remind me why feeding starving children is a good thing?” (Ed. there’s a current affairs subtext here)

My own thoughts on open data is that it sits alongside these ‘for good’ things. But an open data proposal needs background information: about good data management, software, transparency, citizen engagement, and more. It could take pages. I didn’t have pages, I think I had a 200 word limit.

But maybe that’s being disingenuous, and trying to excuse a poorly argued application. It could easily be said that if you can’t explain the benefit of your idea in 200 words it’s not clear enough.

3. A (likely) appalling video

For the final stage, applicants had to submit a 1 minute video of themselves explaining the idea.

This process was transparent from the start, but I don’t do videos. I also don’t do photos, and I don’t do mirrors, get them away from me! Foolish really, to apply for something that would require this at some point.

Recording a video of myself was absurdly difficult. I managed to find software where I could record myself looking into a webcam without having to see the image, but it still made me horrendously anxious. After hours of trying to record a 1 minute video, with intermittent breaks to be sick, I finally completed it. Then without viewing it, I uploaded and deleted all traces.

By some fluke, it may have been amazing. The best they watched. But it seems unlikely. The video application process was a good idea though. Watching a series of videos of each candidate must have been useful and immediate, rather than only reading through applications. But looking back on it I should have requested an alternative, a screenshare demo or something, despite being against the guidelines.

On a positive note, the idea now lives within this blog!