6 minute read

Explaining open data can be difficult. Not the meaning of open data:

data made available to the public without restriction

But the why is tricky. Why invest time and money in it?

There is little hesitation in using open data. Library services wouldn’t refuse national population/demographic data to analyse library usage, or bibliographic data to aid in cataloging. When these are free we take advantage of that. But the idea that library data could serve external needs is rarely considered. Even when it is, it still doesn’t answer why.

Yet libraries are not historically selfish about information. Few would question providing books and information to the public. We’re aware of the value of an informed public.

That’s a good reason for a library worker to pursue open data, but wouldn’t cut it for a manager. Library services have costed functions, like book lending, and computer use. There’s little interest in adding to what libraries do, just on the grounds that they should.

Speaking to those enthusiastic about open data, many have a moment when it clicked. That could be attending an inspirational event (like Open Data Camp unconference). It could be seeing open data being put to public use. Or, just individual frustration from a lack of data in a certain area. It seems like open data has not yet clicked in UK public libraries.

The Libraries Taskforce held data workshops and discussions at their Ambition events in 2016. Frustrations included staff not having time to work on data, or skills to analyse data. When people ask ‘why?’ to open data, a suitable response is to ask if data is currently used to it’s potential. If not, could others have a go?

Frustration at not having skills still isn’t a good enough argument. 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 extra criticism of the service.

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

1. It’s not about transparency

‘Open and transparent government’ is a good thing. But it puts the focus on revealing/stopping bad practice. Showing up dodgy dealing, or mistakes. Many of the datasets that councils are legally obliged to release are linked to this, such as expenditure over £500. Most library data is harmless for services to release, pretty uncontentious, but immensely useful and interesting.

2. It’s not about doing good

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

Do-gooding is of no interest to managers and their budgets. 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) data is still popular among managers, and collected annually by public library services. But this is contributing to a dataset for someone else to resell. If open data can be a feasible replacement for CIPFA, that makes it a compelling case for saving money and redirecting existing time spent.

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 things. If we could get to a stage where the data could be reusable between authorities then it wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest to a manager the time spent on CIPFA should be alternatively managed.

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 libraries.

Open data is seen as innovation. Realistically it fits naturally as an extension of library work, and libraries need to lead on it. Not wait to be the only ones left in local government not doing it.

  • 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.
  • 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 also states:

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 unambiguous, it’s what services are required to do. But policies shouldn’t be a stick to beat people with, they’re informative and formed through evidence. The policy can be taken as a starting point and services can formulate their own additional reasons for following it.

6. Say it’ll reduce workload

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 with each request being slightly different. It may be possible to make each FOI request an open dataset, or refine open data based upon requests.

Will this reduce workload? Not immmediately. But eventually, 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.

7. Do it anyway, and tell them

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

This doesn’t mean starting with things that could be controversial. What are the reports you send to managers each month? Issues per library? Well, push them out as open data, tweet about it, and tell your manager where to find them.

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.