ODI web developer and former local government web manager Stuart Harrison calls for schemes that will motivate local councils to publish open data in the long-term, without putting administrative burdens on council officers
Local councils touch almost every aspect of our lives. We visit a council-operated registry office when we are born. Councils collect our waste, control what is built around us, help ensure our communities are safe places to live and help organise our care in later life.
It’s therefore important that local councils remain relevant and accountable to us. Elected officials play a key role in ensuring this, but as the use of technology increases it’s becoming easier for us all to keep tabs on what our local authorities are doing on our behalf.
Over the past few years there’s been an explosion in local authorities publishing open data. As someone who worked at the coalface of local council open data myself as a web manager, this is great to see. However, while we are seeing an increase in the amount of data being published, progress is still patchy.
One scheme that sought to improve this was the local open data incentive scheme, which offered local authorities cash incentives for publishing open data across three themes: planning, premises licences and public toilets.
This scheme was really well thought out. Not only did it encourage councils to get the data out there, it also prescribed standards and quality of data (I was also chuffed to bits to see two ODI projects I’d worked on – Open Data Certificates and CSVlint – being used in the scheme).
However, one point that was sorely lacking was how councils would continue to publish data in the long-term. There was no mention of whether councils should continue to publish data, nor advice about how they could keep it up-to-date. Without the necessary back-office software, extracting and publishing the data would continue to be a manual task – requiring officers to export, clean and upload data themselves – which takes time and stretches already stretched resources even thinner.
A project that has successfully encouraged sustainable open data publication (without even really talking about open data) has been the FSA’s Food Hygiene Ratings scheme. This requires environmental health officers to upload the results of food safety inspections to a central portal on a regular basis, either by manually uploading an Excel file, or through integration with a back-office database. The FSA’s own system then publishes the results to a central website and handles the data publication.
One initiative called Pendleton Criteria was rolled out back in the early 2000s, when I was still working in local government. It set out a number of ways that local authorities should strive to make information about their planning processes available on their websites.
Where Pendleton Criteria differed from the local open data incentive scheme was that, rather than involving web or IT functions directly, the criteria was aimed straight at planning teams. While this had its drawbacks (purchasing decisions were made that disregarded things like accessibility, usability and design, for example) it did mean that the planning team was more invested in the outcome. As a result, the quality and availability of information about planning on council websites increased by a huge margin.
There are many backend database systems used on a daily basis by councils which publish information directly to the web – from planning and licensing applications to GIS systems – and with enough motivation suppliers could easily adapt their web frontends to publish open data.
Future incentive schemes should take into account not only the publication of data itself but also ongoing publication and integration with back-office systems. That way we can ensure that councils publish data in a timely, sustainable manner and reduce the administrative overload felt by council officers.