Open data for library managers

7 minute read

Explaining open data can be difficult. Not the meaning of open data, a short sentence can serve:

data made available to the public without restriction

But the why is tricky. Why invest time and money in it? What’s in it for us? What’s in it for me?

There is little hesitation in using open data from external sources. Library services wouldn’t refuse book covers for catalogue sites, national population/demographic data to analyse library usage, bibliographic data to aid in cataloging. When these are free it’s great, and we take advantage of that. Yet the idea that library data could serve external needs is rarely considered. Even when it is, it still doesn’t answer why it should be done. Services are naturally selfish: happy to use, but not share.

Yet libraries are not historically selfish about data and information. Few would question whether they should be providing books and information to the public. We’re well aware of the value of the public having access to data and information, this is why we exist.

That’s a good reason for an information professional to pursue open data, but wouldn’t cut it for a manager. Library services have fixed and costed core functions, like book lending, and computer use. For a manager there’ll be little interest in adding to what libraries do, just on the grounds that they should.

Speaking to people enthusiastic about open data, many have a moment when it really clicked. That could be attending an inspirational event (like Open Data Camp unconference). It could be seeing open data being put to great public use. Or, just frustration from a lack of data in a certain area. It seems like open data has not clicked in UK public libraries, though there is growing awareness of issues from being left behind.

The Libraries Taskforce held data workshops at their Ambition events in 2016. Frustrations included staff not having time to work on data, and not having skills to analyse data. All this while knowing there was more in the data that could be used to inform the service. When people ask ‘why?’ to open data, a suitable response is to ask if data is currently used to it’s potential. If not, can others have a go?

IFLA have released their Library Map of the World showing basic measures of libraries in different library sectors, across many countries. There was no data for the UK. That doesn’t mean there’s no data that couldn’t be put up there in future, but it looks grim.

Frustration at not having skills still isn’t a good enough argument. Neither is jealousy at other countries, they’re thriving in other ways as well. We can hope that a wider audience would make more of data than is currently the case, but it’s not guaranteed. Maybe no-one will care. Maybe data will only be used in the same way as it is within library services: at times of crisis and consultation. And that could mean criticism of the service.

So, how do we persuade library managers that open data is worth spending time on?

1. It’s not about transparency

Transparency may be a word that has set back open data. Not because ‘open and transparent government’ is not a good thing. Of course it is. But it puts the focus on showing things up. Showing up dodgy dealing. Showing up bad decision making. Many of the datasets that councils are legally obliged to release are linked to this. Expenditure over £500 and things like that. Most of the library data that people want to get at is harmless for services to release, pretty uncontentious, and immensely valuable.

So avoid the use of the T word.

2. It’s not about doing good

The idea that open data is something that libraries should be doing, for professional integrity and social reasons, is great. But a waste of time for getting buy-in.

Make open data about service improvement. Libraries can benefit in the ways other services have by embracing open. Use value stories, and examples of where open data is used in extraordinary ways. Point to large open data communities, and ask managers to imagine what could happen if those people suddenly found the library relevant in engaging with what they do.

3. Replace existing processes

CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountants) library data is still popular among managers, and collected annually by services. But the investment in CIPFA is extraordinary. Not just in money, but in contributing to a dataset for someone else to resell. It’s an absurd situation that would be comical, if it weren’t for the cost to library services. If open data can be a feasible replacement for CIPFA, that makes it a compelling case for redirecting time to open data, and saving money.

The closed nature of CIPFA data isn’t compatible with open data priciples. But we can do more to ensure standards and schemas. As more services begin looking at open data we should share practice between our different systems, and start co-ordinating how to do certain exports. If we could get to a stage where the data could be compared between authorities then it wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest to a manager the time spent on CIPFA should be spent in this way.

4. Lead in innovation, don’t follow

Library services are not seen within local government as being innovative. We know that’s lack of investment, but it’s the way it is. Councils are investing in bins that are more innovative than library technology.

Open data is seen as innovation. It may not be, realistically it fits naturally as an extension of library work, but anyway, libraries need to lead. Not wait to be the only ones left in local government not doing it. Doing this would mean:

  • Being in control of workload. If services wait to do it then it’s far more likely to be imposed upon them. That’s harder to manage.
  • Access to funding. Councils are investing in open data. Open data project managers, programmes, online portals. None of that money is coming to libraries because people don’t believe that libraries have anything to do with providing data to the public.
  • Career success. Managers can be careerists. Not in a negative way, but they haven’t randomly fallen into management roles. There’s nothing like leading an innovative service to help a career.

5. Higlight existing policy

In local government there are requirements for certain datasets to be made open, as a minimum. These are laid out as part of the Local Government Transparency Code 2015. The code goes further than specific datasets, and states:

the Government believes that in principle all data held and managed by local authorities should be made available to local people unless there are specific sensitivities (eg. protecting vulnerable people or commercial and operational considerations) to doing so. It encourages local authorities to see data as a valuable resource not only to themselves, but also their partners and local people.

This is not ambiguous, it’s what services need to be doing. But policies shouldn’t be a stick to beat people with, they’re informative and formed through evidence. It’s important for all members of a service to know about these policies. They can then take the policy as a starting point and formulate their own reasons for following it.

6. Say it’ll reduce workload

One of the benefits of open data is that with regularly published data, the public have a place to go to for data. This reduces Freedom of Information requests, which are often ad-hoc and have to be done differently for each particular request. It may also be possible to make each FOI request an open dataset, or refine your open data based upon requests.

Will this reduce workload? No, at least not immmediately. But eventually it will, as people use that process instead of FOI. It also helps to appreciate that many of the fears of open data are rarely valid, as the data is already available to the public via FOI.

It’s also not bad for customer service excellence.

7. Do it anyway, and tell them

Managers aren’t always good at making decisions. Good managers empower their staff to make decisions in their areas of expertise. So if you want to do it, and feel confident with the data you work on, get on with it and say what you’re doing.

This doesn’t mean starting with things that could be controversial. What are your day-to-day reports? Top titles being lent? Well, push it out as open data, and tweet about it. Summer Reading Challenge completion stats? Update directly on your website and tell anyone interested (internal and external) to find them there.

Asking a manager to decide whether they want to do open data is just asking a tricky question. Like asking if they want a biscuit or a cake. It’s too difficult to answer, never ask something like that. Tell them you’ve baked a cake, shared it out, and they’re welcome to have a slice.