Open data has become so successful it is being used to justify a review Freedom of Information (FOI), with the government citing the current UK ranking in the Open Data Barometer to demonstrate the UK is still dedicated to transparency. But FOI is an initial stage of Open Data: without those requests, an organisation has less guidance as to what to make open. An article in The Telegraph highlights that without open data being directed by the public, it can become a tool for government propaganda.
There is an argument for organisations to link FOI to open data more. As requests are turned into automated open data outputs, requests would gradually reduce, effectively ‘ticking off’ each one as a new dataset out in the open. Reducing the workload and number of requests, but not questioning the need.
Technology and data investment
Even with FOI under challenge, along with general local and central government austerity, there is still considerable investment in technology and data:
- The Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) announced £10m of available funding to innovate on an Internet of Things (IoT) competition. Part of a £40m programme of government investment in IoT data.
- In 2014, the LGA open data incentive scheme encouraged Councils to publish planning licenses, premises licenses (e.g. pubs), and toilets, giving £7000 to each Council that published all 3 to a standard schema. Out of that came such aggregated developments as the Great British Public Toilet Map.
- A range of councils have invested in data portals to showcase their datasets. Examples include Leeds Data Mill, Hampshire Hub, and Glasgow’s data launchpad.
Investment in data, but not libraries
With closures and reductions in public library funding, alongside increases in funding for public data initiatives, there is a missing association between libraries and the process of providing information to citizens.
There is little benefit to the public in associating public libraries with only physical information, and other organisations/groups with digital information. Data portals are an exciting development in local information sources, but they are notable for being poorly structured and inaccessible other than to developers. Datasets often appear to have been thrown randomly into data portals, with non-standard column names, poor metadata, no naming conventions for titles, and little supporting information or context. It’s definitely data, but not public information or knowledge.
Bristol were awarded £3m as part of a future cities fund, and launched an open data initiative. Browsing through Bristol’s opendata.bristol.gov.uk, which managed 100 datasets in 100 days it is clear that while a significant achievement, it requires the input of information professionals rather than more data. Yet Bristol has also just narrowly avoided losing 7 libraries.
The £10m IoT competition also provides far more than the essential £7.4m of funding for WiFi in libraries across the whole of England (averaging £49,000 per authority).
It may not help the association of libraries with digital information that there is almost no significant open data on public libraries. The list of libraries being published on data.gov.uk was last updated in 2012. Visits and expenditure data is held behind a subscription portal, public lending right data is also inaccessible aside from annual PDF summaries.
It’s enough for public libraries to try to maintain core services on tighter budgets, without insisting on innovation in technology or open data services. But engagement with open data communities, and existing methods of publishing data can be a quick way providing expertise where it is needed, and demonstrate that there is an essential association between useful digital information and investment in a library service.