Reflections on Oxford Open Data Day

[Summary: creations and learning from Oxford Open Data Day]

Yesterday around 30 people got together in Oxford to take part in the first international Open Data Day, an initiative sparked off by David Eaves to get groups around the world exploring what they could create with public data. For many of the assembled Oxford crowd it was their first experience of both exploring public data, and taking part in a hack-day event, so, having started at 10am, it was fantastic that by 4.30pm we:

Thanks to everyone who took part in the day, and particularly to Ed, Kevin, Ed & Dave at White October for hosting the event, and to Incuna for sponsoring the lunch. Many thanks also to Sywia for blogging the event: you can find photos and video clips sharing the story here.

Quick Learning Notes

Skill building: I also took advantage of the Open Data Day to start exploring some of the ideas that might go into an Open Data Cook Book of ‘recipes’ for creating and working with open data. There are big challenges when it comes to building the capacity of both technical developers and non-developers alike to discover and then work with open data.

I’ve been reflecting on the discovery and design processes we could make use of at the start of any open data focussed workshops – whether with developers, civil servants, community groups or campaigners to provide the right level of context on what open data is, the potential and limitations of different datasets, and to provide a general awareness of where data can be discovered. At Open Data Day in Oxford we perhaps struggled to generate ideas for projects in the first half of the day – but understandably so given it takes a while to get familiar with the datasets available.

I wonder if for hack-day style events with people new to open data, some sort of training & team-building exercises for the first hour might be useful?

Data-led or problem-led: Most of the groups working were broadly data-led. They found some data of interest, and then explored what could be done with it. One group (the visualisations of impacts of tax changes for the Robin Hood Tax campaign) was more ‘problem led’ – starting with an issue to explore and then seeking data to work with. Both have their challenges: with the first, projects can struggle to find a focus; with the latter, it’s easy to get stuck because the data you imagine might be available turns out not to be. Finding the data you need isn’t available can provide a good spark for more open data campaigning (why, for example, are the details of prices in the Retail Price Index basket of goods not being published, and FOI requests for them being turned down on the basis of ‘personal information’ exemptions?), but when you can’t get that campaigning to produce results during the course of a single day, it can be pretty frustrating as well.

On the day or in advance?:
We held a pre-meeting for the Oxford Open Data Day – and it was useful in getting people to know each other and to discover some ideas and sources of data – but we perhaps didn’t carry through the ideas from that meeting into the hack-day very strongly. Encouraging a few more people to act as project leaders in advance may have been useful to for enabling those who came wanting to help on projects rather than create their own to get involved.

Data not just for developers:
My mantra. Yet still hard to plan for and make work. Perhaps trying to include a greater training element into a hack day would help here, or encouraging some technically-inclined folk to take on a role of data-facilitators – helping non-developers get the data into a shape they need for working with it in non-technical ways. Hopefully some of the open data cook book recipes might be useful here.

Sharing learning rather than simply products:
David Eaves set out three shared goals for the Open Data Day events:

1. Have fun

2. Help foster local supportive and diverse communities of people who advocate for open data

3. Help raise awareness of open data, why it matters, by building sites and applications

emphasising the importance of producing tangible things to demonstrate the potential of open data. This is definitely important – but I think we probably missed a trick by focussing on the products of the hack-day in presentations at the end of the day, rather than the learning and new skills people had picked up and could tell others about.

Open Data Hack Day in Oxford – 4th December

Open Data Day Oxford on the 4th December 2010 isĀ on the look out for designers, coders, copy-writers, policy people, journalists, statisticians, campaigners, data-geeks and anyone interested in exploring what can be done when you take some public data and spend a day creating things with it in order to contribute to some positive social change goals.

Thanks to Cowley based Web & Software Developers White October we’ve got a fantastic venue for an Oxford Open Data Hack Day* as part of the global Open Data Day events taking place right across the world.

Here’s how an open data hack day in Oxford should work:

  1. Anyone interested in taking part signs up using the registration form here, and, optionally, adds some notes to the planning Wiki page (Just click ‘Edit’ at the top-right of the wiki page, scroll to find where to add your notes, drop them in, ignoring any extra characters/symbols on the page you’re not sure about, and save the changed page. )

    You can sign-up with an idea for the project you want to work on on the day – or just to offer your skills. You don’t need to have taken part in a hack-day before, or to be an uber-geek to take part!

  2. The planning group will make sure we’ve got a good mix of people and possible project teams emerging – and might get in touch to link you up with potential collaborators for the day so you can have conversations in advance.
  3. On the day, we’ll start around 10am in the fantastic split-level and spaciousĀ White October offices, which are an walk/Bus Ride from the centre of Oxford (or a short bus-ride from the station) with coffee, refreshments and chance to meet other participants and hear about different ideas for projects on the day.
  4. We’ll form into teams to work on particular projects. Teams will find a space, get laptops and computers out -and start building things. You can either spend your whole day working with a particular team, or you can take your skills between teams to help them out when they need.

    Teams usually develop fairly organically to have 3 – 5 people in (although some people choose to work in smaller or larger groups) and will have a mix of skills.

  5. In your teams you will identify the data you are working with and what you want to do – and start creating something. It could be anything. At past events we’ve built everything from mash-up maps, through to paper-based card-games and Facebook apps.

    Recent ideas I’ve heard for hack-day outputs include data-driven stencils for creating artworks; web applications for checking the best place to park a bike; mobile phone-based tools for finding transport routes – and lots more.

    I’m expecting to be spending a lot of my time helping source data – and help people get hold of the data they want – and the team from White October will, I’m sure, be on hand offering their skills in all manor of digital webby stuff.

  6. By about 1pm we’ll get some lunch in – and depending on how work is going, we might break for people to feedback on progress so far and share any offers of, or requests for extra skills they have. We might even be able to link up by Skype with one of the other open data day events taking place around the world (tbc.)
  7. After an afternoon of making stuff, around 5pm, we’ll have a show and tell. If any kind sponsors get in touch we might even have some prizes to award to the best or most innovative creations.

    We’re thinking of inviting people from the City & County Council or other groups who might have an interest in releasing data along to see what has been created. Anyone with contacts who we could invite along to the show and tell, do let me know.

  8. We’ll tidy up and head to the pub – an optional ending to the day.

Are you up for it? If so – head over to the Wiki page to get registered. Offers of help organising, sourcing sponsorship, inviting show and tell participants etc. all welcome. Any questions? Drop them in as blog comments or on the Wiki.

(*Whilst some of the data we focus on might be Oxford/Oxfordshire based, participation is open to all, not just those based locally)