20 ways to connect open data and local democracy

[Summary: notes for a workshop on local democracy and open data]

At the Local Democracy for Everyone (#notInWestminister) workshop in Huddersfield today I led a session titled ‘20 ways to connect open data and local democracy‘. Below is the list of ideas we started the workshop with

In the workshop we explored how these, and other approaches, could be used to respond to priority local issues, from investing funds in environmental projects, to shaping local planning processes, and dealing with nuisance pigeons.

Graphic recording from break-out session by [@Jargonautical](http://www.twitter.com/jargonautical]

There is more to do to re-imagine how local open data should work, but the conversations today offered an interesting start.

1. Practice open data engagement

Data portals can be very impersonal things. But behind every dataset is a council officer or a team working to collect, manage and use the data. Putting a human face on datasets, linking them to the policy areas they affect, and referencing datasets from reports that draw upon them can all help put data in context and make it more engaging.

The Five Stars of Open Data Engagement provides a model for stepping up engagement activities, from providing better and more social meta-data, through to hosting regular office-hours and drop-in sessions to help the local community understand and use data better.

2. Showing the council contribution

A lot of the datasets required by the Local Government Transparency Code are about the cost of services. What information and data is needed to complete the picture and to show the impact of services and spending?

The Caring for my Neighbourhood project in Sao Paulo looked to geocode government budget and spending data, to understand where funds were flowing, and have opened up a conversation with government about how to collected data in ways that make connecting budget data and its impacts easier in future.

Local government in the UK has access to a rich set of service taxonomies which could be used to link together data on staff salaries, contracts and spending, with stats and stories on the service they provide and their performance. Finding ways to make this full picture accesssible and easy to digest can provide the foundation for more informed local dialogue.

3. Open Data Discourses

In Massachussetts the Open Data Discourse project has been developing the idea of data challenges: based not just one app-building, but also on using data to create policy ideas that can address an identified local challenge.

For Cambridge, Mass, the focus for the first challenge in fall 2014 was on pedestrian, bicycle, and car accidents in the City. Data on accidents was provided, and accesed over 2,000 times in a six-week challenge period. The challenge resulted in eight submissions “that addressed policy-relevant issues such as how to format traffic accident data to enable trend analysis across the river into Boston, or how to reduce accidents and encourage cycling by having a parked car buffer.”

The challenge processes culminated in a friday evening meeting that brought together community members who had worked on challenge ideas, with councillors and representatives of the local authority, to showcase the solutions and provide an award for a winning idea.

4. Focus on small data

There’s a lot of talk out there about ‘big data’ and how big data analytics can revolutionise government. But many of the datasets that matter are small data: spreadsheets created by an officer, or records held by community groups in various structures and formats.

Rahul Bhargava defines small data as:

“the thing that community groups have always used to do their work better in a few ways:

  • Evaluate: Groups use Small Data to evaluate programs so they can improve them
  • Communicate: Groups use Small Data to communicate about their programs and topics with the public and the communities they serve
  • Advocate: Groups use Small Data to make evidence-based arguments to those in power”

Simple steps to share and work with small data can make a big difference: and keep citizens rather than algorythms in control.

5. Tactile data and data murals

The Data Therapy project has been exploring a range of ways to make data more tactile: from laser-cutting food security information into vegetables to running ‘low tech data’ workshops that use pipe-cleaners, lego and crayons to explore representations of data about a local community.

Turning complex comparisons and numbers into physical artefacts, and finding the stories inside the statitics can offer communities a way into data-informed dialogue, without introducing lots of alienating graphs and numbers.

The Data Therapy project’s data murals connect discussions of data with traditional community arts practice: painting large scale artworks that represent a community interpretation of local data and information.

6. Data-driven art

The Open Data Institute’s Data as Culture project has run a series of data art commissions: leading to a number of data-driven art works that bring real-time data flows into the physical environment. In 2011 Bristol City Council commissioned a set of art works, ‘Invisible Airs‘ that included a device stabbing books in response to library cuts, and a spud gun triggered by spending records.

Alongside these political art works that add an explicit emotional dimension to public data, low-cost network connected devices can also be used to make art that passively informs – introducing indicators that show the state of local data into public space.

7. Citizen science

Not all the data that matters to local decision making comes from government. Citizens can create their own data, via crowdsourcing and via citizen-science approaches to data collection.

The Public Lab describes itself as a ‘DIY Environmental Science Community’ and provides How To information on how citizens groups can build their own sensors or tools for everything from arial mapping to water quality monitoring. Rather than ‘smart cities’ that centralise data from sensor networks, citizen science offers space for a collaboration between government and communities – creating smart citizens who can collect and make sense of data alongside local officials.

In China, citizens started their own home water quality testing to call for government to recognise and address clean water problems.

8. Data dives & hackathons

DataKind works to bring together expert analysts with social-sector organisations that have data in order to look for trends and insights. Modelled on a hackathon, where activity takes place over an intense day or weekend of work, DataDives can generate new findings, new ideas about hwo to use data, and new networks for the local authority to draw upon.

Unlike a hackathon where the focus is often on developing a technical app or innovation and where programme skill is often a pre-requisite, a Data Dive might be based around answering a particular question, or around finding what data means to multi-disciplinary teams.

It is possible to design inclusive hackathons which connect up the lived experience of communities with digital skills from inside and outside the community. The Hackathon FAQ explores some of the common pitfals of holding a civic hackathons: encouraging critical thought about whether prizes and other common features are likely to incentivise contributions, or distort the kinds of team building and collaboration wanted in a civic setting.

9. Contextualised consultation

Too often local consultations ask questions without providing citizens with the information they might need to explore and form their opinions. For example, a online consultation on green spaces, simply by asking for the Ward or Postcode of a respondent, could provide tailored information (and questions) about the current green spaces nearby.

Live open data feedback on the demographics and diversity of consultation respondents could also play a role in incentivising people to take part to ensure their views are represented.

It’s important though not to make too many assumptions when providing contextualised data: a respondent might care about the context near where their parents or children live, as much as their own for example – and so interfaces should offer the ability to look at data around areas other than your home.

10. Adopt a dataset

When it snows in America, Fire Hydrants on the street can get frozen under the ice, and so its important to dig them out after snowfall. However, the council don’t have resources to always get to all the hydrants in time. Code for America found an ingenious solution, taking an open dataset of fire hydrants, and creating a campaign for people to ‘Adopt a Hydrant‘, committing to dig it out when the blizzards come. They combined data with a social layer.

The same approach could work for many other community assets, but it could also work for datasets. Which dataset could be co-created with the community? Could walkers help adopt footpath data and help keep it updated? Could the local bus user group adopt data on accessibility of public tranport roots, helping keep it updated?

The relationships created around a data quality feedback loop might also become important relationships for improving the services that the data describes. ?

11. Data-rich press releases

Local authorities are used to putting out press releases, often with selected statistics in. But how can those releases also contain links to key datasets, and even interactive assets that journalists and the public can draw upon to dig deeper into the data.

Data visualisation expert David McCandless has argued that interactivity plays an important role in allowing people to explore structured data and information, and to turn it into knowledge. The Guardian Data Blog has shown how engaging information can be created from datasets. Whilst the Data Journalism Handbook offers some pointers for journalists (and local bloggers) to get started with data, many local newspapers don’t have the dedicated data-desks of big media houses – so the more the authority can do to provide data in ready-to-reuse forms, the more it can be turned into a resource to support local debate.

12. URLs for everything – with a call to action

Which is more likely to turn up on Twitter and get clicked on:

“What do you think of new cycle track policy? Look on page 23, paragraph 2 or report at bottom of this page: http://localcouncil.gov/reports/1234”? or

“What do you think of new cycle track policy? http://localcouncil.gov/policy/ab12”

Far too often the important information citizens might want might be online, but is burried away in documents or provided in ways that are impossible to link to.

When any proposal, policy, decision or transaction gets a permenant URL (web address) it can become a social object: something people can talk about on twitter and facebook and in other spaces.

For Linked Data advocates, giving everything in a dataset its own URL plays an important role in machine-to-machine communication, but it also plays a really important role in human communication. Think about how visitors to a data item might also be offered a ‘call to action’, whether it’s to report concerns about a spending transaction, or volunteer to get involved in events at a park represented by a data item.

13. Participatory budgeting – with real data

What can £5000 buy you? How much does it cost to run a local carnival? Or a swimming pool? Or to provide improved social care? Or cycle lanes? Answers to these questions might exist inside spending data – but often when participatory budgeting activities take place the information needed to work out what kinds of options may be affordable only comes into the picture late in the process.

Open Spending, the World Bank, NESTA and the Finish Institute have all explored how open data could change the participatory budgeting process – although as yet there have been few experiments to really explore the possibilities.

14. Who owns it?

Kirlees Council have put together the ‘Who Owns My Neighbourhood?’ site to let residents explore land holdings and to “help take responsibility for land, buildings and activities in your neighbourhood”. Similar sites, with the goal of improving how land is used and addressing the problem of vacant lots, are cropping up across American cities.

These tools can enable citizens to identify land and government assets that could be better used by the community: but unchecked they may also risk giving more power to wealthy property speculators as a widely cited case study from Bangalore has warned.

15. Social audits

In many parts of the developing world, particularly across India, the Social Audit is an important process, focussed on “reviewing official records and determining whether state reported expenditures reflect the actual monies spent on the ground” (Aiyar & Samji, 2009).

Social Audits involve citizens groups trained up to look at records and ‘ground truth’ whether or not resources have been used in the way authorities say. Crucially, Social Audits culminate in public hearings: meetings where the findings are presented and discussed.

Models of citizen-led investigation, followed by formal public meetings, are also a feature of the London Citizens community organising approach, where citizens assemblies put community views to people in power. How could key local datasets form part of an evidence gathering audit process, whether facilitated by local government or led by independent community organisations?

16. Geofenced bylaws, licenses and regulations: building the data layer of the local authority

After seeing some of the projects to open up the legal codes of US cities I started where I would find out about the Byelaws in my home town of Oxford. As the page on the City Council website that hosts them explaines: “Byelaws generally require something to be done – or not done – in a particular location.”. Unfortunately, in Oxford, what is required to be done, and where is locked up inside scanned PDFs of typewritten minutes.

There are all sorts of local rules and regulations, licenses and other information that authorities issue which is tied to a particular geographic location: yet this is rarely a layer in the Geographic Information Systems that authorities use. How might geocoding this data, or even making it available through geofencing apps help citizens to navigate, explore and debate the rules that shape their local places.?

17. Conversations around the contracts pipeline?

The Open Contracting project is calling for transparency and participation in public contracting. As part of the UK Local Government Transparency Code authorities have to publish the contracts they have entered into – but publishing the contract pipeline and planned procurement offers an important opportunity to work out if there are fresh ideas or important insights that could shape how funds are spent.

The Open Contracting Data Standard provides a way of sharing a flow of data about the early stages of a contracting process. Combine that information with a call to action, and a space for conversation, and there are ways to get citizens shaping tenders and the selection of suppliers.

18. Participatory planning: visualising the impacts of decisions

What data should a local authority ask developers submitting planning applications to provide?

For many developments there might be detailed CAD models available which could be shared and explored in mapping software to support a more informed conversation about proposed building projects. ?

19. Stats that matter

?Local authorities often conduct one-off surveys and data collection excercises. These are a vital opportunity to build up an understanding of the local area. What opportunities are there to work in partnership with local community groups to identify the important questions that they want to ask? How can local government and community groups collaborate to collect actionable stats that matter: pooling needs, and even resources, to get the best sample and the best depth of insight?

20. Spreadsheet scorecards and dashboards

Dig deep enough in most local organisations and you will find one or more ‘super spreadsheets’ that capture and analyse key statistics and performance indicators. Many more people can easily pick up the skills to create a spreadsheet scorecard than can become overnight app developers.

Google Docs spreadsheets can pick up data live from the web. What dashboards might a local councillor want? Or a local residents association? What information would make them better able to do their job?

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