Have you heard of Open Data?
Before today, quite possibly not, but as the Government has today released the details of all of their departmental spending above £25,000, it will be far more familiar.
Behind the scenes VentnorBlog has, for quite some time, been encouraging the Isle of Wight council to do the same – but more on that below.
If you’re someone who likes to know how your money is spent by the Government/council, Open Data is something that you should be very interested in. Indeed the idea of Armchair Auditors is now actively being encouraged by the Government.
Background to Open Data
The idea behind it all started off as a movement of geeks who felt that free and open access to masses of data held by authorities was important for a modern democracy.
Through a fortunately-timed dinner where then-PM Gordon Brown and Web-inventor, Tim Berners-Lee chatted about it, it has now become reality.
Such a reality, in fact, that the Government’s Communities & Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, announcement on 5 June 2010 that the Government wanted councils to open up their data.
This would start with the detail of all of the money local councils had spent with suppliers, if the invoice was over £500. Mr Pickles has fixed that this must happen, preferably as soon as possible, but certainly before 1 Jan 2011 – or there’ll be trouble.
It’s generally acknowledged that the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has led the field for UK councils.
Not only were they the first to commit to release their Payments to Suppliers data way back in May, but the way/structure they used to release their data is seen as the model for all of the UK’s councils and Best Practice.
As we mentioned, VB has for been asking the Isle of Wight council to open their data, so those of us who pay rates on the Island can, if we choose, understand where the money that the council receives gets spent.
Doesn’t sound too unreasonable does it?
After prompting from VB, we were told back in July this year by IWC that they were “aiming to have this information displayed in a comparable form to that employed by Windsor by the end of September.”
This has clearly passed, without the data, in any form, appearing.
George Brown gives a commitment
Cllr George Brown stood up at a council meeting in the last few months announcing that IWC would be opening its data.
Those who don’t know the background to this, would have been left with the impression that he and the council had a long-held belief that their data should be open. From Cllr Brown, there wasn’t a mention of the fact that it’s Central Government that is making councils share this information.
(After listening to that, and understanding the background, you couldn’t help but wonder how many other things the IW council announces as if they’ve come up with the idea, only for us to discover later that it’s something that has been imposed on them.)
Anyone who has tried to ask the council about its facts and figures will know from experience that the council takes lots of steps to try and stop their data being free, as requests are often forced down the ‘take a month to find out what you want’ FoI routes.
A clear, current example of this is the publishing of IWC Members’ Interests, which they ‘make available’ at County Hall, but refuse to publish online as, “”There is no requirement for this information to be available online.”
End of October?
More recently, a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from another Islander at the start of October attained the answer that the council hoped, “to publish the data relating to 2009/10 by the end of the October 2010.”
It won’t have escaped your notice that we’re now in the second half of November, so clearly another target release date has been missed.
Now? “Sooner rather than later”
Of late we’ve been asking the council again, when they plan to deliver the open data.
Things have changed, sadly not for the better. Now they’re giving the far more vague answer, “sooner rather than later,” citing that they “want to make sure it is accurate before going live.” (We’d always hoped that the data they held would have been accurate already – especially as they making decisions that effect us based on it!)
Sometime later, Gavin Foster, head of the council’s press office, promised to find out the date that they expected the project to be delivered.
When we didn’t hear back, we prompted further to find that he’s withdrawn from his previous assurance, returning to the “as soon as we can,” stance.
This is all very confusing as any project, technology or otherwise, must have a project plan, milestones and a delivery date. Quite what’s taking so long is unclear – and certainly isn’t being revealed externally, despite inquires.
At the very least, we can expect it to arrive before the start of January 2011 date, that Mr Pickles has set.
What to expect when it does arrive & getting involved
The Island is incredibly fortunate in having Tony Hirst living here.
His work with Open Data and Data Visualisation is world-leading.
VentnorBlog will be working with him on all sorts of interesting ways of presenting and looking at the data … when the IWC finally releases it.
If you want to get involved with what promises to be an interest project, just get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.