Open data platforms: strip out complexity and make things happen

Welcome_to_the_London_Datastore___London_DataStore

I’m going to write a piece which I think  may conflict (if I’m wrong shout) with one of the key actions in the Birmingham Smart City Roadmap.   Action C1: Birmingham City Council Open data Portal  says

Following the sign off of BCC’s Open Data Policy and Strategy, the first step will be to create a simple open data portal initially for BCC data. The main function will be to provide a data catalogue where citizens and developers alike can view and download open data. In a phased approach, the portal can then be developed further in line with user needs and it will be open to host/link to data from other Birmingham organisations.

Emer Coleman knows a lot about doing just this.  She did it for the London data Store and is wary about such a process. her fear is that procurement often over complicates what is bought and done – slowing things down.   She blogs about this

City as a Platform is one that has wide traction in the “Smart City” space. It’s an idea that has been widely promulgated by service integrators and large consultancy firms. This idea has been adopted into the thinking of many cities in the UK, increasingly by local authorities who have both been forced by central government diktat to open their data and who are also engaging with many of the large private companies who sell infrastructure and capabilities and with whom they may have existing contractual arrangements.

Standard interpretations of city as platform usually involve the idea that the city authority will create the platform into which it will release its data. It then seeks the integration of API’s (both external and internal) into the platform so that theoretically the user can access that data via a unified City API on which developers can then create products and services.

and goes onto add about work on the London datastore

…the London Datastore is not a platform. It is a website to which static datasets can be uploaded. For most authorities and certainly for the GLA itself its largest data asset base are static files (usually CSV) which require little technical resource to publish. It is worth noting that the cost of the London Datastore was circa £16,000 and no additional staff were recruited to the GLA for the scoping, development and deployment of the London Datastore (apart from some developer days which were paid to hire a developer to build the website in Drupal). The code for the website is open source and can be freely reused by anyone who wanted to replicate it in their own city

and that…

Had the London Datastore tried to adopt the platform model (as opposed to the website model) then it would have been impossible to achieve this early start. By the time the London Datastore launched, TfL, for example, were not in a position to confirm how they would release their data, how the API would be configured for data feeds and it took some months for them to open up the access to real time data. When that happened the London Datastore did not seek to integrate their API into the Datastore it simply “pointed” to the real time feeds and timetables which could be downloaded by the developers directly from the TfL developer portal.

Emer’s tips for the people creating a place where Birmignham share’s it’s open data includes:

1. Do it – release what you have in machine readable form on an open source website with clear policies on reuse. If you don’t know what they are then talk to the Open Data Institute.

2. Do more – get any public bodies with whom you have a relationship in the public sector to upload their static data in machine readable form. 

3. Do even more – use your authority as a city leader to encourage anyone in the data market (transport authorities, utility companies) to join your ecosystem. Convince them of the benefit to the city and the citizen and then use your website to point to their open API’s. Familiarise yourself with all of the new providers who have come into the ecosystem and who can provide agile and cost effective products and services. 

4. Stop using outsourced IT as an excuse. If you have outsourced your IT then make a distinction between digital/data and IT. IT is kit and tin – data is digital and yours. And if that does not work make it clear to your supplier that their intransigence and crippling contracts are a poor offering for your citizens and that when it comes to the next contract negotiation you will be seeking out SME’s who can do this really well and for a fraction of the cost with better results for your citizens.

and finally she says:

I’ve seen figures of up to £200,000 for Data Platforms but if you follow the model suggested above you can build a really nice open source website to start and get the ball rolling for a maximum of £20,000 (and that’s being really generous and allowing for some nice design). Probably less because in the end technologists don’t really care what the site looks like they just want the data.

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