The Open Data Master Class Series - Guest Post

The following is a guest post by Dr. Hanif Rahemtulla, Horizon Digital Economy Research, University of Nottingham.  

 Over the past 12 months we have seen a number of high profile announcements on the release of central and local government data for free. The release of government data will, it is envisaged, support greater transparency and accountability within Government. Furthermore, as O’Reilly (2009) and others argue, the advent of Open Data will fundamentally change the nature by which citizens interact with government. Specifically, the release of public data online and public APIs (which is already underway in some places) will create a platform supporting the development of third-party communication applications outside of government (Headd, 2010). This it is expected, will provide a vehicle for expanding public outreach and enhancing public engagement leading to ‘a more responsive and citizen-focused government’ (Madera, 2009).

However, many of the arguments for the release of PSI are founded on the premise that everyone has the potential to make use of available data. As Gutstein (2010) states, Open Data empowers those with access to the basic infrastructure (e.g., the digital infrastructure such as hardware and software) and background knowledge and skills (e.g., financial and educational resources) to make use of the data for specific ends. This is supported by a recent study by Davis (2010) which has shown, users of Open Government Data (OGD) in early 2010 were generally spilt between ‘micro-enterprise and SME business in the private sector, local and national public sector institutions, and academic institutions, with a very limited representation of the public’ and third sector.

Furthermore Richard Stirling (Former Head of data.gov.uk) in July 2010 acknowledged that the public are struggling to make sense of the huge volume of public sector datasets that have been published online and expressed concerns that the public may be coming to conclusions that “weren’t quite valid” after browsing the 2,850 data sets available on data.gov.uk (increased to over 5,800 today). Sterling attributes this to the format of the data which impacts on the overall capacity of end users to make use of the data.

As such, access to PSI to promote transparency represents only the first step to a more informed citizenry (Boyd 2010). The next step involves understanding who is in a position to make “effective use” of this newly available data as purported by Gutstein (2010). This in turn will depend upon addressing existing barriers to access including information literacy through training and education in OGD use. Addressing this barrier will become increasingly important as ever more data is released.

The Open Data Master Class Series 2010

In 2010 Dr. Hanif Rahemtulla from Horizon Digital Economy Research at the University of Nottingham in partnership with several research universities/institutions (University of Aberdeen, University of Newcastle, University of Southampton, University College London and Royal Geographical Society), data.gov.uk and the business sector (ESRI UK, Ordnance Survey, Talis and ITO World) conducted a series of free one-day Open Data Master Classes (ODMC) across the UK. This series which featured in the Guardian’s Data Blog was attended by over 250 people across all sectors of society including academics, communities, grassroots organizations, NGOs, civil servants, professionals and the general public who benefited from a greater understanding of the opportunities around Open Data (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Open Data Master Class at the Royal Geographical Society 2010Figure 1. Open Data Master Class at the Royal Geographical Society 2010

Figure 1. Open Data Master Class at the Royal Geographical Society 2010.

The ODMC series combined theory and practicals with guest lectures from prominent members in the field from government, academia and business (see below). The series provided participants the opportunity to use and harness open datasets from various government departments and public sector organizations including Transport and Environment - and in doing so, participants learned a range of techniques from data processing and data analysis to interpretation and map visualization.

The ODMC was structured to provide delegates with a broad overview of the Open Data Revolution with presentations on the history and drivers of the Open Data movement (Hanif Rahemtulla and Derek McAuley, University Of Nottingham), the Open Data Initiative in the UK (James Forrester, data.gov.uk) and linking data on the web (Talis). These presentations were followed by a demonstration on the challenges, data and tools to support open innovation and community needs (Chris Parker, GeoVation and Ian Holt, Ordnance Survey) concluding with a presentation on how organisations and individuals have used Open Data providing best practice tips and highlighting some of the tools and resources available (Will White, ESRI UK). These presentations were complemented by guest lectures from Chris Taggart (OKF) on Making Local Government More Transparent and Christopher Osborne (ITO World) on Open Data – Creating a Virtuous Circle. These presentations provide a valuable insight into the work being conducted on opening up local sector data and the work of the business sector in harnessing the value from OGD.

The practical sessions devised by Jeremy Morley (University of Nottingham) provided an opportunity for delegates to process, analyse, combine and display open datasets using a range of freely accessible online tools (i.e. geocommons web service) and resources (i.e. Spatial Analysis Online and GEO-REFER). The output from the practical includes an interactive map of stops extracted from the National Public Transport Access Nodes (NaPTAN) dataset and visualised (after data processing) in geocommons (Figure 2).

All the course material including practicals will be made available on the Horizon Digital Economy Research website (https://www.horizon.ac.uk/) after the final ODMC at the University of Southampton at the end of January 2011.

Dr. Hanif Rahemtulla is a Geospatial Science Research Fellow in Horizon Digital Economy Research at the University of Nottingham. His research is principally focused in the area of geographic information science focusing on public participation and on the wider philosophical issues on the societal impacts of information communication technologies.

Contact Details: Email: Hanif.Rahemtulla(at)nottingham.ac.uk : Twitter: HanifRahemtulla

Figure 1. Open Data Master Class at the Royal Geographical Society 2010

Figure 2. Interactive map of stops extracted from the NaPTAN dataset and visualised in geocommons