Congratulations to TSO’s Chief Executive Richard Dell, serial entrepreneur and cool dude Robin Brattel, and all the team at TSO for creating the space for opening up data for transparency and re-use. They’ve put their weight behind the OpenUp contest to give the public a way of showing us how government data can be brought to life with specific initiatives which are innovative, practical and demonstrate the power of open data.
I was a member of a panel led by Robin, and included Professor Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence (nothing artificial about Nigel’s intelligence!) and Information Adviser to the Prime Minister, Founding Director of Rewired State, “simply extraordinary” Emma Mulqueeny, top digital marketing and e-commerce guru, Ashley Friedlein, and the Guardian’s respected Technology Editor, Charles Arthur.
Out of 40 entries, there were four impressive finalists who won plaudits for their creativity and resourcefulness from all the judges: Benjamin Wood who devised an application which identifies your current location and provides information on that area; Gail Knight who made one of the best presentation I have seen for a long time, on The Great British Public Toilet Map, which enables people to ask local authorities to provide open toilet data to create a comprehensive national data-set; Harry Harrold who has produced a New Premises? website providing information for organization interested in moving to new offices; and the distinguished Open University computer scientist Tony Hirst who showed us how access to university course data would make it easier to create aggregation that spans multiple education institutions offering similar courses.
After careful deliberation, we unanimously chose Tony Hirst as the overall winner, and Gail Knight as the runner-up.
Speaking to Charles Arthur in the margins of the event, we agreed that there is still a huge culture challenge to persuade more people in local government to open up. When I was Director of Communications under the then Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer, Government decided to implement the Freedom of Information Act across Whitehall, putting me in charge of co-ordinating the changes across all of the communication directorates. As with anything new, Communication Directors immediately recognised that for all the talk of openness, there was a marked reluctance -often entirely understandable- across the civil service to take risks in making too much information too readily available until policies and decisions were more fully formed. Many ministers I worked for welcomed the Freedom of Information Act like a bullet in the head (Falconer was very persuasive in winning over sceptics and critics). But the point is that over a short time everybody made it work. One just needed to have a mind-set that with the exception of some specific classes of information, the default was publication. The question was not whether to disclose, but when.
I really hope that open data takes off in the UK. If the TSO event was anything to go by, the ideas, energy and drive are there to push the digital boundaries, improve public service provision and put the citizen even more in the driving seat.