A panoramic photograph of Malham Cove in North Yorkshire.

Barriers to innovating with open data

I just counted it up. In the past two months I’ve had eight invites to share how we’re achieving so much with open data. I’ve spoken on the phone, written emails, and declined invites to come to London or write free content for blogs in London.

Here’s what I’ve written and said in a blog post so that everyone can read it. It’s a quick one, I’ve got from Chesterfield to Birmingham on the train.

First of all, we’ve achieved a huge amount with very little money in Leeds. Social housing, children’s learning, adult healthy lifestyles, bin collections, industrial strategy, traffic flow monitoring, public transport strategy, GDPR compliance. In all these areas we have built, or are building, services based around open data. We both create and use open data. We both create and use open tools. The software that we’ve written is already some of the most popular in local government.

Why aren’t more places doing this?

First of all, some are. Bath Hacked has too many examples to list. TfL is world-leading at transport data. Newcastle University is doing some fantastic work on air quality.

But I think that we could be doing better. There are three big reasons why we’re not,

Local government is still too scared to fail.

I’ve been asked on more than a few occasions how we’ve achieved so much in Leeds. I typically reply with “just get started, release lots of safe datasets, be public with your challenges and problems, spend a bit of money priming innovation, see what people use, and do more of what works”.

As Leeds has achieved more with open data the common response that “oh no, that won’t work” has become increasingly frustrating. It is working for us. Try it. Stop building a fool-proof data-release checking system, a five-star data warehouse, and an enterprise-grade data maturity model. Too many people have been talking about doing this for years and achieved nothing. Get started.

GDS create an intimidating atmosphere.

I’ve written many blogs before about GDS and their mixed record. I wrote about voter registration and I wrote about HMRC’s tax system. I have good friends who work at GDS and do a great job. But.

GDS have an enormous budget compared to local authorities. I suspect that just writing their open strategy or their inclusion strategy cost more than most local authorities have to do digital innovation over many years. The problem is that GDS’ resources make perfection an option and an ambition for GDS. And that visible goal of perfection at GDS leads to a desire to emulate in local government. This is not good.

People in local authorities are looking on at GDS’ goal of perfection, and of working with internal talent instead of outsourcing, and of favouring open solutions, without the resources to emulate them. So they’re planning actions, doing early user-testing, doing user-research and collecting user-stories. But they don’t have the money to actually build the thing.

To me that’s a real problem. I’ve been criticised for cutting corners in the past by GDS people. I explain that I don’t earn a salary, and that my total income from work with local governments over the past three years is around £10,000. They apologise and calm down a bit. I wish that they were more aware to start with how odd it looks to us when they share pictures of teams of 20 people on big salaries, around big walls of post-it notes in Holborn, telling us how we should all be innovating like them.

We do this in the private sector, we’re world-leading at it, but in local government it isn’t going to work.

Resources have run out

In the face of continuing cuts to local government budgets, and combined with the continued inability of local governments to raise their own money, something worrying is happening. More and more local authorities are trying to make money from their content and intellectual property. That means that instead of releasing open source code and open data they are tempted to build products, keep them closed, and sell them on.

I don’t that this is in the long-term interests of the UK, but in the short term I can’t question the logic. Local authorities are making money selling solutions and innovation to other councils. Locked away, the code and the content is more likely to decay. I still believe in open. Just. But the case is getting harder and harder to make.

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