Open Data in Manchester: Challenges and Opportunities

This blog post was originally written for the Open Knowledge Foundation blog.

Open Data Cities was initiated in May 2009, premised on the simple question of how cities would evolve if all data were made open. Would the same inequalities and asymmetries persist for example? Moreover, what would need to happen within the city to bring about the adoption of more open and transparent practices?

Greater Manchester is a region in the North West of England with a population of 2.8 million people. It comprises of 10 boroughs containing two cities and many large towns. Open Data Cities approached the city as a functioning organism comprising of these 10 boroughs. For the project to have a genuine impact with its inhabitants, we proposed that the project would need to align with how people used the city rather than the ways in which the city was administered. The reality within the city is that although people access services across authorities and whilst there are a number of pan-Greater Manchester public bodies, local authorities still deliver services to tight geographical boundaries.

Addressing the whole Greater Manchester region in this way, created an environment that allowed the project to evolve in a particular way. As the region was adopting City Region status this would require a certain alignment in terms of data and information. The granting of City Region status also opened up the possibility of bringing about an elected mayor, enabling, theoretically, a coherent region-wide strategy to be implemented.

Working across the ten boroughs – all with their own democratically elected councils is not without its challenges. Each public body has its own administrative and data structure and specific set of difficulties. It was therefore necessary to adopt a pragmatic, non-threatening approach as part of our project. Conversations therefore centered around the idea of allowing citizens to look ‘under the hood’ of public service so to speak, of creating better understanding of what councils do. Most importantly we were interested in rebalancing the relationship between public service and citizen and the possibility for services to be delivered with citizens rather than simply to citizens.

Communicating The Benefits

We were often challenged as to how the release of data would benefit the person on the street and who would create the applications and interpretations to allow this to happen. At the start of the Open Data Cities project the Open Data Manchester community was formed to provide evidence that there was indeed a ‘demand’ for the release of open data within the region. We argued that by giving people the tools to understand and act within communities, open data would have broader benefits too. Moreover, there was a growing acceptance that enabling people to access the data and information relevant to their locality was important. This in part has been born out by the emergence of hyperlocal blogging as a means of disseminating news and information at a community level.

Open Data Cities also strongly emphasised the innovation and economic benefits such open data could bring to the region. Opening up the ‘undiscovered country’ of open data, could kick start an economy based on the creation of data services. We had seen examples where companies such as Elbatrop software in London had created best selling applications for San Francisco based on released tree data. If Greater Manchester released data this could present an opportunity for developers to create applications that could have relevance beyond the Greater Manchester region. Research had identified that open data could add £6 billion of added value to the UK economy, how much of that value could be injected into the regional economy?

High value, ‘quality of life’ datasets were identified. Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive now TfGM, made the decision to release large and regularly updated datasets. This sparked a number of good applications but most of them were ‘proof of concept’ with little that could really be considered ready for market. This wasn’t the ‘release the data and people will build cool stuff’ future that we had been promoting, and even though the transport authority had now committed to making data open as a default position, they were very aware that not much was being built.

Acknowledging the Barriers

By talking to people who were involved in Open Data Manchester and the wider Greater Manchester digital community, it became apparent that although open data offered opportunities, there were a number of significant barriers that were inhibiting the development of services. These could be seen as return on investment, risk and liability.

The return on investment argument was quite apparent from early on. People have to make a living and generally want to see their efforts rewarded. By Open Data Cities embracing the 2.8 million people of Greater Manchester it was hoped that there would be enough people to sustain a market in Open Data application development. In order to kickstart this market it was proposed that a number of innovation challenges with sizeable incentives should take place.

It was obvious that there were no large digital businesses in the open data space and we had long held the view that their presence would be an indicator of the health of the open data innovation ecosystem. A suggested reason for the scarcity being that open data licensing was transferring all the risk on to the developer, whereas previously data would be generally released with some sort of service level agreement, none of these guarantees exist with open licensing. The idea of spending large amounts of development time on applications built on data that could then be turned off was deemed too risky.

Liability was also an issue. Who would be liable if someone had bought an application where the data was suddenly turned off or were inaccurate? There were also concerns as to the robustness of supplied data and the sometimes, archaic formats data were supplied in. The liability argument was also been put forward as a ‘supply side’ reason for non-disclosure both from a robustness of data and command and control perspective.

Collaboration

When FutureEverything and Trafford Council began working together on DataGM – The Greater Manchester Datastore, many of the local authorities were in a state of panic through having to negotiate the drastic shortfalls in budget. It was becoming apparent that innovation and citizen empowerment, although appealing were the least of concerns. Public bodies are still in a time of fiscal stress and it has been stated that few, if any, public bodies innovate out of a crisis.

All Greater Manchester local authorities and most pan-Greater Manchester public bodies are represented on the datastore steering group – The benefit of having a local authority leading the project, is their ability to get people around the table. Whilst some members of the group understood the logic of having a datastore and shared intelligence, there was a lot of resistance. Members stated despair at being involved with a project where they didn’t know if they would still be in post in three months time, with others not seeing the point of spending time and resource on something that didn’t have concrete output. There was also a very tangible silo mentality where the idea of shared intelligence across authorities was seen as attractive but not essential.

Evidence and Evolution

As the DataGM project gathered momentum more evidence started to emerge as to the inefficiencies of maintaining a siloed and closed data culture. The servicing of Freedom of information requests costs Greater Manchester public bodies over £4 million a year, over 600 public officials a day are unable to find or use data that they require in order to carry out their jobs – costing authorities over £8.5 million a year. The annoying tendency – for public bodies – of citizens using services outside their borough boundaries also creates difficulties. With no pan – Greater Manchester data initiative it is difficult for public bodies to create and deliver on coherent regional strategies. Open data offers a solution.

Now DataGM is becoming established the economic logic of using a centralised data catalogue, where the data that local authorities use themselves is openly available, is starting to make sense. Open data needs to be transformational. For public bodies enhanced engagement and the creation of innovative services are not enough. We are at a stage where we are saying if you spend A you will get savings of B and with open data you will also gain benefits of C, D, E…

DataGM is starting to develop data release schedules so that local authorities can release similar data in a coordinated way. With developers such as Swrrl – one of the recent winners of the EU Open Data Challenge, some of that data is being expressed as Linked Data. The Open Data Manchester community continues to grow. Although there is still a long way to go with open data in Manchester it feels like more people within public service are starting to see the benefits, and the possibility of Greater Manchester becoming an Open Data City gets closer.

Why Open Data?

Back in May 2009 after the final presentations at Futuresonic 09. I sat down with Adam Greenfield and we talked about how cities evolved and grew, and how they developed inequalities through those that have access to information and those who don’t. This coupled with an individual’s ability to act on that information in a meaningful way begged the question, that if all information/data was open and available, how would a city evolve? Would it grow with the same asymmetries, as Adam suggested in his Futuresonic presentation, is this inequality a preconfigured state?

At the time there were few cities who had embarked down the route of fully opening up their datasets although some cities in North America had started a process that would eventually, as in the case of Vancouver, lead to an adoption of open source, open standards and open data principles.

It was through seeing this emergence of open systems that the Open Data City project began to evolve. Data is is the lifeblood of our modern technologised society. It tracks, evidences and creates mechanisms for decisions. Much of this data doesn’t exist outside the confines of City Hall but we see evidence of the impact of this data everyday. Speed humps suddenly appear on your road or your bus doesn’t turn up when you thought it would. Bins only get emptied every two weeks or your local school closes down. This is the physical manifestation of the publicly held data that few have access to.

The inability to connect action taken by a public body with the evidence on which the decisions are made can have an insidious and corrosive effect on the relationship between the citizenry and government. Just as Louis Brandeis said ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant’ with regards to transparency and corruption, the opposite is also true. In a closed system even though the decisions might be taken with the most honourable of intentions, the lack of evidence for the decision creates doubt, rumour and misrepresentation. In a closed system the power of the media increases as the distrust of the political sphere decreases. The media becomes the interlocutor and which can interfere with the relationship between citizen and government. This all presumes that those that govern have nothing to hide. The lack of transparency in government creates the opportunity for the media to expose the bad apples using a system of clandestine briefings and investigative reporting. This process of exposé undermines the trust the public has in the system of government because there is no evidence to the contrary or that the evidence that people can see has been derived from a seemingly arbitrary decision making process.

The opportunity has arisen for public bodies to create a new relationship with the people who they serve. A more transparent and open system can lead to a more equitable environment, where the citizen is not a customer or passive consumer of service and information, but an engaged citizen who is able to make decisions based upon facts, not rumour and can hold to account public servants with less than honest intentions.

The Sunlight Foundation www.sunlightfoundation.com, named after the Louis Brandeis quote, are an American lobby group advocating transparency in government. They have produced this graphic which they call the Cycle of Transparency which aptly illustrates the benefits of transparency in government. As each element of the Cycle of Transparency moves forward concurrently, bringing about the changes needed to create a more transparent government whilst identifying new needs.

The Cycle Of Transparency highlights the use of technology to make information open and accessible. It can be argued that transparency and openness has been enabled by digital technology. People are now able to access, interpret and distribute information easily. Until quite recently, the channels for making information open and accessible where limited and to a certain extent controlled.

The landscape is changing. The opening up of data will have a seismic effect on the way we access and share information. New services will be created, as citizens and institutions demand the ability to interpret and navigate through data in the way they want. It will create a more efficient data environment where information is shared rather than duplicated, and it will highlight errors in the system with anomalies being addressed rather than hidden.